For the second consecutive year the Pittsburgh City League is set with just six teams.
A few coaches throughout the league, however, believe the playing field has taken a step closer to becoming fairly even.
"The league is wide open this year and that's a good thing for our league," longtime Perry Traditional Academy coach Bill Gallagher said. "We don't know what the future holds, so we have to keep tweaking, adjusting and rocking and rolling for each new season."
The City League, which had 13 teams and two sections in 1972, lost four teams -- Schenley, Langley, Peabody and Oliver -- in the past two years following school closings by the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
"The good thing is no more schools closed," Gallagher said. "Allderdice should be strong. Brashear should be strong. University Prep should be strong. Westinghouse continues to put the time in to get better and Carrick is rebuilding with a new coach [Craig Aguglia]."
Perry returned to the top of the heap last season after winning its second league title in three years. The Commodores have won nine league crowns since 1997.
University Prep returned to the title game for the second consecutive season last year where it lost to Perry. The Wildcats, nonetheless, represented the league in three preliminary-round Class AAA state playoff games last fall before losing to Selinsgrove in the main bracket the PIAA playoffs.
"This year, more than any other year, is wide open," Westinghouse coach Monte Robinson said. "In my opinion, that's a good thing for the league and especially a great thing for us. Even though we're the smallest team, we feel we should be able to compete this year."
The Dragons graduated 20 seniors from last season, but fifth-year coach Jerry Haslett believes his core of returning starters should keep his team competitive this year.
"We don't have a lot of depth, but we have a strong core of good guys," Haslett said. "As long as no one goes down [to injury], we should be pretty good. We're going to need to stay healthy."
Allderdice welcomes back a veteran offensive line consisting of All-City lineman Brody Miller (6-2, 280, Sr., OT/DT), Jalen Ledbetter (6-0, 245, Sr., OG/DL), Talon Smith (6-2, 225, Jr., OG/DL) and Rob Smith (6-3, 270, Jr., OT/DL). That front line will pave paths for Marquis Martin (6-1, 185, Sr., TB/DB) and Antonio Thomas (5-6, 160, Sr., TB/DB), who both shared carries behind star fullback Patrick Ferguson last year.
Haslett will look for a new quarterback to take charge of his offense and has three candidates in Alex Schneider (6-1, 170, Jr.), Dajuan Dugger (6-3, 175, Jr.) and James Jackson (6-0, 165, Jr.).
Jackson's twin brother, Timothy Jackson (6-0, 165, Jr., WR/S), as well as Joe Graham (6-0, 190, Jr., WR/DB) and Jamir Powell (6-0, 180, Jr., WR/DB) will be targets for whomever wins the starting quarterback job.
Matt Hill (6-0, 220, Sr., FB/ILB) is expected to be a key starter on defense, while Alex Hahn (6-1, 170, Jr.) returns as the Dragons' place-kicker.
Allderdice went 2-3 in league play last season and finished 3-6 overall. The Dragons lost to Perry in the semifinals of the City League playoffs.
"Everything is going to come down to the basics in football," Haslett said. "We have to run the ball and not turn the ball over. We have to set ourselves up and not give anything away.
"Our defense is going to be key. We should be ridiculously fast on defense. We might not be the biggest team, but we should have some of the fastest guys out there."
Only in its third year of existence, the University Prep football program quickly has become a threat for league opponents.
A conglomeration of University Preparatory Academy, Science & Technology Academy and Obama Academy, the "USO" football team is expected to return two of the league's top skill-position players in seniors Marcus Johnson (6-2, 175, WR/FS) and Clay Moorefield (5-10, 180, WR/RB/DB).
Johnson, who earned All-City honors as a wide receiver last season, had 48 receptions for 909 yards and nine touchdowns as a top target for star quarterback Akil Young.
"We're definitely top heavy with skilled players," third-year coach Lou Berry said. "We still have some holes to fill.
"Our skilled guys are fast and have experience, so we hope they can carry us until the younger guys get their feet wet."
Junior Ronald Brown (5-11, 150, QB/DB), who started at Westinghouse as a sophomore last year, transferred to University Prep and is expected to take over at quarterback.
Seniors Curtis Williams (5-10, 180, WR/DB), Abner Roberts (5-10, 180, TB/LB), Kevin Williams (5-11, 200, Sr., C/DT) and Nicholas Stallworth (5-9, 155, WR/DB) also are returning starters on both sides of the ball.
University Prep, which won a league title two years ago, lost to Perry in last season's City League championship game. The Panthers went 4-1 in the league last year and finished 7-4 overall after losing to Selinsgrove in the first round of the PIAA Class AAA playoffs.
Despite returning only a few key starters from last season, coach Robinson believes "The House" should be more competitive this year.
"The key for us is going to be running the ball," said Robinson, who returns for his sixth season. "We're going to need to shorten up the game and have our defense give us a chance on offense."
Robinson, however, will have to rely on a young quarterback once again. He was expecting Ronald Brown to return for his junior year, but Brown transferred to University Prep.
Sophomore Darnell Jordan (5-8, 165) will likely be the Bulldogs' top signal caller at quarterback. Robinson also plans on using senior Richard Harris (5-11, 175) in a variety of offensive roles, including quarterback, wide receiver and running back.
Harris as well as seniors Rapheal Drummond (5-11, 195, RB/LB) and Tevin Johnson (5-9, 185, OL/LB) are Westinghouse's returning defensive starters.
The Bulldogs, who haven't won more than one game the past two seasons, went 1-4 against the league and 1-7 overall. Westinghouse, which last won a City League championship in 1996, has not qualified for the league playoffs since 2001.
"We're going to need to stay disciplined and concentrate during the practice week in order to compete come game day," Robinson said. "Our goal is the same goal as everybody else and that's to get back to the City League championship game.
"That goal never changes for us."