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 back in 1972, lost four teams -- Schenley, Langley, Peabody and Oliver -- and added one -- the "merger" team of Obama Academy, University Prep and Science & Technology -- in the past two years following school closings and openings 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."
One year removed from adding players from Langley's defunct program, Brashear coach Rick Murphy has faith that his Bulls are past the rebuilding process.
Brashear, which last captured back-to-back league championships in 2007-08, went 3-2 against league competition last season and finished its campaign 3-6 overall. The Bulls still advanced the league playoffs but lost to University Prep in the semifinals.
"Last year was a transition year with adding guys from Langley and it was a tough year and a growing year for us," said Murphy, who is back for his sixth season.
"With the guys we have this season, we feel comfortable that we can compete in every game we have on our schedule."
Three-year starter Jeff Arnold (6-4, 270, Jr., C/DL) will anchor Murphy's offensive line. All-City tackle and Harvard recruit Scott Evans (6-3, 250, Sr., OL/DL) and Jordan Maben (6-0, 290, Sr., OL/DL) also bring a veteran presence up front.
Angelo Reed (5-10, 160, Sr.) will take over as the Bulls' starting quarterback and will have experienced targets in Adam Tajuddin (5-6, 140, Sr., WR/DB) and Ryan Mandarino (6-0, 170, Sr., WR/DB).
On the ground, Brashear's backfield will feature Ty Powe (5-7, 160, Jr., RB/DB), a transfer from Imani Christian, and sophomore Khalil Saunders (5-6, 130, RB/DB).
Defensively, senior Diondre Faulk (6-2, 215, TE/LB) returns as a three-year starter.
"We struggled a little running the ball last season because we didn't take care of the football," Murphy said. "We have to keep ourselves in games and not shoot ourselves in the foot.
"If we eliminate turnovers, we should be able to move the ball more successfully because we're comfortable with our offensive line."
After spending the past 10 seasons as an assistant coach at Brashear, Craig Aguglia has taken over as the Raiders' head coach.
Carrick, however, hasn't experienced much recent success on the football field. A City power back in the 1970s, the Raiders, who were winless last year, have only had two winning seasons (2007 and 1987) in the past 25 years and have not won a league championship since 1983.
"We're very excited about starting a new era with fresh blood," said Aguglia, who is a 1993 graduate of Brashear. "We have nowhere to go but up."
Davon Cruse (6-1, 220, Sr.) is expected to lead the offense as Carrick's starting quarterback and should have a few reliable targets in seniors Sean Martin (6-1, 170, WR) and Lavar Chapman (6-1, 170, WR) as well as sophomore Marsai Howard (5-10, 200, WR/OLB).
Junior running back Joe Kalsek (5-8, 200), who led the team in rushing the past two seasons, will highlight Aguglia's backfield.
Junior Hakeim McKenzie III (6-0, 220, RB/MLB), a transfer from Redlands East Valley (Calf.), is expected to be a big addition on defense.
In the trenches, Carrick returns two four-year senior starters in All-City center/defensive lineman Jesse Reid (5-9, 240) and Keith Davis (6-0, 220, OL/DL).
"I know we're not going to have the most athletic players on the field, but I'll take the kids we have and I'm excited to see them prove themselves," Aguglia said.
"If these kids stay disciplined and stay healthy we're going to see some success.
"I can see the hunger in their eyes. They want to win."