For even the worst teams in the WPIAL, a new football season brings about a clean slate. But for those who follow it comes an array of unanswered questions that are centered around a common theme -- exactly what will transpire over the next several months and what will it all mean?
In the North Xtra coverage area, where several of the WPIAL's top teams reside, these questions are particularly important, so here are some of the burning preseason topics with the start of play just over a week away.
How does one properly evaluate North Allegheny? It's hard for any topic surrounding local high school sports not to center around the school affectionately, or begrudgingly, known as "The U" (as in "The University of North Allegheny"). There's no real way to heap further praise on what the Tigers have been able to accomplish over the past several seasons -- their resume speaks volumes. Over the past three seasons, North Allegheny has amassed a 45-2 record, and has won three consecutive WPIAL Class AAAA titles and two PIAA championships. Last year, it went 16-0, a run which saw only one team (Woodland Hills in the WPIAL championship game) get within 10 points of it.
The Tigers, though, have to replace 19 of their 22 starters from last season, leaving them with a group of players that is extremely thin on experience, including at several skill positions.
They have had success amidst such changes in the past -- they won the WPIAL championship in 2011 with first-year starter Mack Leftwich at quarterback -- but never quite to this extent. The top-25 national ranking from USA Today aside, this is a team in something of rebuilding mode, but at a school like North Allegheny, this is very likely just the chance for the school's next crop of stars to emerge in what may be Art Walker's toughest coaching job yet.
What will North Hills look like post-Jack McCurry? McCurry was as synonymous with North Hills football as anyone, having coached the Indians for 35 seasons, a span in which he won four WPIAL championships. He retired in the offseason, passing the reins to longtime assistant Pat Carey, who has been involved with the program for 24 years (the first four of which came as a player).
Replacing someone viewed as a legend is as unenviable task as there is. That much is obvious. But Carey also has to elevate a program that faded a bit in recent seasons, as the Indians failed to win more than six games in three of the past four seasons. Nine starters return from last season's 6-4 squad and the Indians should be among the top four teams in the Northern Eight Conference. A Class AAAA playoff berth is a reasonable expectation.
It takes years to see the true imprint of a new coach, but after this year, people should be able to get at least a general idea of how North Hills will look under Carey.
Can Mars repeat as champion in the Greater Allegheny Conference? It's not far-fetched to think that the Planets can have a similarly successful season after going 9-2 last year. A major reason for that stems from the fact that they return many of their top skill position players. Junior Josh Schultheis rushed for 1,687 yards last season, the ninth-best mark in the WPIAL, while averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Without much of a doubt, he'll be the focal point of Mars' offense. Quarterback Owen Nearhoof is also back, as is running back Jason Lozzi, who should give the Planets some depth in the backfield.
Will North Catholic be the one to topple Clairton? For the past four seasons, Clairton has steamrolled its way through Class A to the tune of a well-documented 63-game win streak. But many of the primary contributors to that dominance are now gone, leaving the proverbial cupboard relatively bare and making the Bears as vulnerable as they have been for some time.
Of Clairton's challengers in Class A, few present a bigger threat than Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic. The Trojans went 9-3 last season and won the Eastern Conference title before losing to Sto-Rox, 34-20, in the WPIAL semifinals.
The team's star player, running back P.J. Fulmore, is back after rushing for just shy of 2,000 yards his sophomore year.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG