Parity is the byword when it comes to WPIAL Class AAA football.
Eight teams have appeared at Heinz Field in the Class AAA title game over the past five years.
Montour and West Allegheny are the only teams that have made two title appearances during that stretch. The other teams that have made title appearances in the past five years are Thomas Jefferson, Blackhawk, Hopewell, Central Valley, Knoch and West Mifflin Area.
In fact, the most recent team to win consecutive titles in Class AAA was Thomas Jefferson (2006-08).
Mars Area and Thomas Jefferson claimed outright conference titles last year in the Greater Allegheny and Big Nine Conferences, respectively, while West Allegheny, Montour and Central Valley tied for the Parkway Conference crown.
Following are preview capsules of the teams in the East Xtra region:
The Trojans have posted a 3-15 record in two seasons under coach Al Gaiardo. They were winless in the Greater Allegheny Conference last season and finished with a 1-8 record. The Trojans were outscored, 400-117.
"The big thing is to get the kids to believe that they can win," Gaiardo said. "Our conference schedule is like going through a gauntlet, but we can compete if we stay healthy. Our goal is to get to the playoffs."
Six starters return on offense, including quarterback Kyle Holmes (6-3, 175, Sr.). Holmes completed 42 of 104 passes for 556 yards.
"Kyle started five games when our starter Rob Hebenthal was out with a concussion and a case of mono," Gaiardo said. "He picked up valuable experience during that stretch."
The other returning starters on offense are running back/defensive tackle Sal DeCario (5-10, 205, Sr.), tight end/linebacker Clint Beeman (6-0, 205, Sr.), fullback/linebacker T.J. Balega (5-11, 190, Jr.), tackle/end Lloyd Zulisky (6-2, 225, Sr.) and guard/tackle Levi Humberger (5-11, 275, Soph.).
Running back Josh Flack (5-9, 165, Jr.) also has backfield experience. He rushed for 250 yards on 34 carries last season.
DeCario and Flack are hoping to fill the graduation void left by Josh Wannamaker, who led the Trojans with 539 yards rushing, 35 receptions and 543 receiving yards.
DeCario, Beeman, Balega and Zulisky are also returning starters on defense. Wide receiver/cornerback Jaymie Howe (5-10, 155, Jr.) is also back.
The Panthers have made nine consecutive WPIAL playoff appearances since moving down from Class AAAA. The Panthers posted a 6-2 record in the Greater Allegheny Conference last season, finishing in a three-way tie for second place. They advanced to the WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinals before losing, 24-21, to Thomas Jefferson and finishing the season with an 8-3 record.
All but five starters have graduated, including tailback Dane Brown and quarterback Nico Lodovico. Brown, a Cornell recruit, rushed for 4,159 yards over three seasons. Lodovico threw for 2,162 yards and rushed for 731 yards over the past two seasons.
"It's a rebuilding year for us," Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. "We lost eight starters on one side [offense] and nine on the other side [defense]."
Charan Singh (6-2, 192, Sr.) takes over at quarterback after leading the Panthers in receiving last year with 28 receptions and 476 yards.
"Charan has been our backup quarterback the past two years," Botta said. "Two years ago, he had to play one game when Nico got hurt and he completed 7 of 8 passes, including one for a touchdown."
The other two returning starters are wide receiver/cornerback Colin Jonov (5-10, 173, Sr.) and guard/end Adam Mihoci (6-1, 290, Sr.). Jonov missed six games last season with an injury. Mihoci has been moved from tight end to guard. Jonov and Mihoci are the only starters back on defense.
Running back/cornerback Paul Emanuele (5-8, 160, Sr.) and running back/linebacker Brett Zanotto (6-0, 210, Jr.) received starting time in the backfield last year when Brown sat out with an injury. Emanuel rushed for 339 yards on 62 carries, while Zanotto picked up 160 yards on 27 carries.
"They have different running styles," Botta said. "Brett is a powerful runner. Paul is more of a scat back, quick and elusive. Brett missed most of last season with a knee injury. He's healthy as a horse this year."
A four-year streak of WPIAL playoff appearances came to an end last year, coach Casey Cavanaugh's final season with the Golden Lions. They finished with a 2-6 record in the Greater Allegheny Conference and a 2-7 record overall. Dave Keefer takes over after serving as an assistant to Cavanaugh the past eight seasons.
"I know everybody," said Keefer, a sixth grade teacher at Greensburg Salem middle school. "I'm very familiar with the kids, so it's been an easy transition. That reduces the learning curve for the kids."
Keefer is switching from a spread offense to a two-back, multiple-formation offense.
"It's tough to use a spread offense [with three or four receivers] when we also use a 4-2-5 defense. In most cases, our receivers also play in the defensive backfield. We can't expect them to run pass patterns on offense, then cover receivers on defense, and expect to keep them fresh."
The Golden Lions used quite a few underclassmen in last year's starting lineup, including Daniel Walters, who threw for 661 yards as a freshman.
"Daniel moved from our district to Hempfield," Keefer said. "It's tough to lose a talented young player like him. We have three players battling to replace him."
Returning starters on offense are wide receiver/cornerback Tyler Mathias (5-9, 165, Jr.), wide receiver/free safety Simeon Stevens (6-0, 165, Sr.), tailback/cornerback Dom McKinley (6-0, 195, Sr.) and tight end/linebacker Kenny Clark (6-0, 220, Sr.). Mathias had nine catches last year, while Stevens had eight.
"Kenny is the pulse of our team," Keefer said of Clark. "He's a great leader."
Stevens, McKinley and Clark are among eight starters back on defense. The others are safety Nate Sweeney (5-9, 165, Sr.), ends Dillon Berbrick (6-2, 215, Sr.) and Grant Mularski (5-10, 200, Sr.), and tackles Donnie Chedrick (6-0, 250, Jr.) and Grant Slezak (6-0, 250, Jr.). Chedrick started as a sophomore, but missed last season with a knee injury.
First Published August 22, 2013 4:00 AM