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 North Xtra region:
Talbots coach Jacque DeMatteo begins his sixth season with hopes of returning to the WPIAL playoffs. Hampton finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Greater Allegheny Conference last season and lost in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs to Hopewell. The Talbots finished with a 7-3 record.
DeMatteo is rebuilding, as the Talbots have four starters returning on each side of the ball. Quarterback Jon Nigro and tailback Anthony Bianco are the biggest losses to graduation. Nigro threw for 1,951 yards over the past two seasons, while Bianco rushed for 1,327 yards during the same stretch.
The Talbots also lost Ryan Luther, a two-year backup quarterback, and brother Collin Luther, a starter at wide receiver. Ryan Luther threw for 260 yards in backup appearances, while Collin Luther caught 21 passes in two years.
"The Luther brothers decided to concentrate on basketball," DeMatteo said. "I support their decision, because their future is in basketball, but it does hurt our team."
Hampton's top returnees are Jon Floss (5-11, 170, Sr., WR/CB) and Eddie Edwards (5-11, 170, Sr., WR/CB). Both have been two-way starters since they were sophomores. Floss has 36 catches for 549 yards over the past two years. Edwards led the team last year with 28 catches and 533 yards.
Also back on offense are C.J. Arch (6-0, 190, Sr., RB/LB) and Trace McConnell (6-2, 185, Sr., WR/LB). Arch rushed for 141 yards on 28 carries.
Floss, Edwards and McConnell are back on defense, along with Seve DiBucci (6-0, 215, Sr., LB).
"Our biggest concern is to rebuild both lines," DeMatteo said. "Our lines will be young and inexperienced."
Coach Sam Albert coached his youngest squad last year, as the Golden Rams had only three seniors. Almost everybody is back, however, with one major exception.
Senior Ryan Richards, a three-year starter at wide receiver and linebacker, was killed in an accident in July.
"It was devastating to the team," Albert said. "He was a major part of our team. We expected a great season from him. He will be missed."
The Golden Rams missed the WPIAL playoffs last season for only the second time in seven years. They finished with a 3-5 record in the Greater Allegheny Conference and had a 4-5 overall mark.
"We started out 0-4, then won the next four games," Albert said. "So we ended on a good note."
Eight starters are back on each side of the ball, including four two-way starters: Julian Flenory (5-11, 245, Sr., G/DE), Allan Cratsenburg (6-3, 225, Sr., TE/LB/P), Zach Mazur (5-10, 200, Sr., FB/ILB) and Elijah Jackson (5-7, 140, Jr., TB/CB).
Jackson rushed for 756 yards and nine touchdowns. Cratsenburg caught 18 passes for 313 yards. Mazur rushed for 207 yards on 43 carries.
Also back on offense are Blake Leri (5-11, 170, Jr., QB), Mike Brell (6-2, 270, Sr., LT), Justin Anuszek (6-3, 230, Jr., C) and Deion Fletcher (6-1, 180, Sr., WR). Leri threw for 815 yards and four touchdowns. Fletcher caught 13 passes for 207 yards.
"Blake was also our free safety last year and he almost broke the school record with six interceptions," Albert said. "But he's coming off of reconstructive knee surgery and I don't want to play him both ways."
The other starters back on defense are Derrick Mazer (5-8, 185, Jr., NG), Weston Bernath (5-10, 200, Jr., LB), Nathan McKinney (5-7, 150, Jr., OLB) and Will Burris (5-9, 145, Jr., CB).
Coach Mike King has led Knoch to seven WPIAL playoff berths in nine years. The Knights finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Greater Allegheny Conference and were defeated in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs by West Mifflin. Knoch finished the season with a 7-3 record.
The Knights offense was hit hard by graduation losses. Eight starters have graduated, including quarterback Dakota Bruggeman, tailback Ben Tackett, and receivers Luke Kroneberg and Michael Cunningham. Bruggeman threw for 1,264 yards, Tackett rushed for 1,171 yards, and Kroneberg and Cunningham combined for 49 catches and 870 yards.
"We have some major role players to replace," King said. "Tackett and Bruggeman were starters the past two years."
The only starters back on offense for Knoch are Adam Albert (5-9, 165, Sr., WR/CB), Kraig King (5-11, 200, Sr., OT) and Connor Shinsky (6-5, 255, Sr., OT/DE). Albert had 10 catches for 164 yards. King has moved to tackle after playing center last year.
"We will have a lot of new faces on the offense," King said. "But the good thing is we have a lot of kids in the program who are really itching to get face time. They have been waiting in the wings as understudies and will finally get a chance to start this year."
Albert and Shinsky are also back on defense, along with Cody Milsom (5-9, 172, Jr., LB), Kaleb Dietz (5-10, 155, Sr., LB) and Colin McTighe (5-10, 185, Sr., LB).
Running backs Milsom and Cory Godlewski (5-10, 185, Jr.) are vying to fill the void left by Tackett's departure. Jim Larrimer (6-4, 190, Sr., WR) would have started last year, but missed the season with a leg injury. Quarterbacks Troy Hixson (6-1, 180, Jr.) and Dan Farinelli (6-1, 203, Jr.) are hoping to earn the signal-calling duties.
Coach Scott Heinauer has led the Planets to 11 playoff appearances in 12 years. The Planets have made five consecutive postseason appearances since moving up to Class AAA. Mars won the Greater Allegheny Conference last year and finished with a 9-2 record after losing to West Mifflin, 21-13, in the WPIAL quarterfinals.
The Planets have four starters back on each side of the ball.
"We're fortunate to have three skilled players back on offense," Heinauer said. "All three are capable of breaking the big play."
The four returnees on offense are Owen Nearhoof (6-1, 178, Sr., QB/FS), Jason Lozzi (6-0, 200, Sr., WB/LB), Josh Schultheis (6-1, 220, Jr., FB) and John King (5-10, 202, Sr., OG/LB).
Nearhoof has completed 96 of 199 passes for 1,410 yards over the past two seasons. Schultheis rushed for 1,687 yards last season after accumulating 269 as a sophomore backup. He needs 44 yards to reach 2,000. Lozzi has rushed for 1,050 yards over the past two seasons.
"The offensive line is our biggest concern," Heinauer said. "Four of our five linemen graduated."
Three vacancies on the offensive line will be filled by Gabe Spurlock (6-3, 265, Jr., OT), Joel Glomb (6-0, 235, Sr., OT) and Trevor Heyl (6-2, 232, Jr., OG).
Nearhoof, Lozzi, King and Nolan Skirtich (6-1, 205, Sr., CB) are the returning starters on defense.