Perhaps no league in WPIAL Class AAAA was better in 2012 than the Southeastern Conference.
When the WPIAL decided to downsize from four Class AAAA conferences to three for the 2012-2013 cycle, it made an already strong conference even better at the top.
That's because in addition to Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon, Bethel Park and Peters Township, the Southeastern Conference now has perennial power Woodland Hills.
All five teams made the playoffs, with four advancing to the WPIAL quarterfinals and the Panthers and Wolverines meeting in the semifinals. Woodland Hills won and advanced to the final, where it lost to North Allegheny.
With those five strong teams at the top, it left no room for anyone else to crash the party. Penn Hills failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1997 last season.
Meanwhile, the bottom three teams last season -- Baldwin, Canon-McMillan and Plum -- will all look to improve this season with first-year coaches.
The Mustangs and Big Macs will have former NFL players roaming their sidelines this season in Matt Morgan and Ron Coder, respectively. Baldwin hired Peter Wagner, the school's dean of students and a Highlanders assistant for the past four years.
But it will be tough for any of those teams to break through with the talent returning at the top. Upper St. Clair and Woodland Hills are two of the preseason favorites to win the WPIAL, while Mt. Lebanon has a lot of speed on the outside returning, along with a strong line.
All three teams will have to replace very good quarterbacks, which could open the door a little for Bethel Park and Peters Township. The Black Hawks and Indians made the playoffs with a freshman and a sophomore, respectively, starting at quarterback last season and should be helped by their returns in 2013.
Last season marked the first time in 14 seasons that Penn Hills missed the postseason.
John Peterman is hoping he can get the Indians back to the WPIAL playoffs in his second year at the helm.
"Last year, our players were learning a new offense and defense," Peterman said. "They were just trying to pick things up and were thinking about what their job assignments were. Now they're more reactive."
Penn Hills will have to replace quarterback Darius Holloway, who threw for 809 yards and rushed for 438 yards in his senior season.
Sophomore athlete Billy Kisner (5-11, 175), who caught six passes and carried the ball 20 times as a freshman in 2012, will take over for Holloway.
His top targets on the outside will be Mike Anthony (6-4, 215, Sr.) and Sean Featherstone (6-1, 175, Sr.).
In the backfield, Peterman is expecting big things out of sophomore Te'Shan Campbell (5-10, 175), who missed most of last season with a foot injury.
The Indians defense allowed 14 points or less in four of the team's nine games last season and returns two all-conference players in safety Featherstone and Marshall Thompson (6-0, 230, Sr.), who is moving from defensive end to middle linebacker this season.
In an effort to get the Plum program back on track, the Mustangs are turning to one of their own.
Matt Morgan, a Plum High School alum who went on to play at the University of Pittsburgh and in the NFL, was hired as the new Mustangs football coach in February.
Morgan comes to Plum after five years as an assistant coach, the last three coming at Gateway.
The Mustangs new offensive and defensive coordinators, Loran Cooley and Mike Barlak, also are coming over from Gateway.
"We've brought the precise practice style we had at Gateway," said Morgan. "If you don't finish a drill in time, you move on. It's a fast-temp type of practice. The kids have bought in."
The Mustangs head into the season with a 16-game losing streak and a new quarterback, as Wil Fuhrer (6-2, 180, Jr.) will take over for the graduated Corey DeLoach.
Fuhrer is part of a youth movement for the Mustangs, who are counting on a lot of non-seniors this season.
Juniors Nate Turchick (5-11, 210, FB/LB), Kyle Smecker (6-2, 175, RB/DB), Zach Martin (5-10, 165, RB/LB) and Nick Poprocky (6-2, 225, OG/DE) are all returning starters who will see time on both sides of the ball.
Sophomores Patrick Crossey (6-2, 175, WR/DB), Jake Tecak (6-5, 345, OT/DT) and Zach Nolan (6-3, 225, TE/DE) and freshman Kevin Brown (5-10, 165, DB) are expected to step into starting roles this season.
With so many young players, Morgan is counting on seniors Kyle Tomasitis (6-0, 195, OT/LB) and Steven Turchick (6-0, 265, G/DT) to be leaders.
But in spite of Plum's youth and recent struggles, Morgan hasn't tempered his expectations.
"My expectations are extremely high," said Morgan. "I'm used to winning and I don't like losing too much. It's going to be tough, but I want to win."
The Wolverines entered the 2012 WPIAL Class AAAA tournament as the No. 7 seed, but advanced to the championship game before falling, 21-14, to North Allegheny.
Woodland Hills lost a lot of talent from last season's team. On offense, the team has to replace quarterback Cody McClelland, who threw for more than 1,800 yards last season, and his top target, Tom Greene.
And on defense, the team loses its leading tackler, linebacker Alex Beasley, and defensive end Jawan Turner, who set a school-record with 22 sacks.
"They were two of the finest players we ever had here," Woodland Hills coach George Novak said of Beasley and Turner.
But the cupboard is never bare at Woodland Hills, and the Wolverines figure to be in the race to get back to Heinz Field.
Leading the way will be running back Miles Sanders (So.). In his freshman season, Sanders led the Wolverines with 738 yards rushing and was second with 211 yards receiving.
"He worked really hard this offseason," said Novak. "He's made great strides. He was impressive last year and now he has more experience under his belt. He may even see time on defense [at safety]."
Two players, Jeremiah Jones (So.) and Harry Randall (Sr.), are competing to replace McClelland, who set a school-record for passing yards in a season with 1,803 in 2012.
Randall saw time in the backfield, at receiver and in the secondary last season, but saw his season come to an end when he tore his ACL. He still had not been cleared for contact as of last week.
Chris David, who started at cornerback and saw time at receiver last season, is also working his way back from an injury at the end of last season.
The breakout player on the outside for the Wolverines may be Trevon Mathis (Sr.), who had 109 yards receiving on five catches last season.
Up front, the team returns three starters in Jimmy Roney (Sr.), Dan Gibson (Jr.) and Wilford Clark (So.).
While the defense lost Turner and Beasley, it returns eight starters, led by linebacker Dante Broadus (Sr.), linemen Kevin Soloman (Jr.), Mike Smith (Sr.) and Roney and defensive back David.
First Published August 22, 2013 4:00 AM