If you follow WPIAL high school football even a little bit, you know Clairton has been on a historic run the past few years.
Over the past four seasons, the Bears have won four WPIAL Class A titles (they've won five in a row overall), four PIAA titles, and own a state-record winning streak of 63 games, the longest active streak in the country.
Clairton's star trio of Tyler Boyd, Titus Howard and Terrish Webb graduated this past spring -- all three are now enrolled at Pitt and playing for Paul Chryst -- as did nearly all of the team's other starters, however. Can the Bears continue their amazing run?
That will be one of the key storylines pertaining to South Xtra area teams when the season gets underway a week from tomorrow.
It will be fun to watch Washington's Shai McKenzie make a run at the WPIAL single-season rushing record. Former Hopewell star Rushel Shell owns the record, having rushed for 2,740 in 2009. McKenzie (2,689 yards) fell just 51 yards shy of the mark last season.
Several South Xtra area teams could be hoisting WPIAL championship trophies. Upper St. Clair is among the favorites in Class AAAA, Thomas Jefferson and West Mifflin are threats in Class AAA, Washington and South Fayette are two of the strongest teams in Class AA, and Clairton is certainly a Class A title contender.
Seven South Xtra area schools have new coaches. The biggest name is actually back for the second time. George Smith has returned to McKeesport. Smith coached the Tigers for 28 years before resigning after the 2009 season. He was rehired in January. Smith had a ton of success in his previous stint, winning 197 games, two WPIAL titles and two PIAA titles.
Canon-McMillan hired a former NFL player in hopes of reaching higher digits in the win column. Ron Coder, who played at Penn State and then six years in the NFL, has an interesting coaching resume. In 2007, he led a team to a national championship. That team was the Pittsburgh Passion, who then played in the Independent Women's Football League.
Serra Catholic has struggled mightily the past three seasons, so it only made sense the parochial school in McKeesport turned to a "saint" to help resurrect its program. Tony St. Angelo was the offensive coordinator at Elizabeth Forward the past two seasons. Serra went winless a season ago.
Other new coaches are Baldwin's Pete Wagner, Chartiers Valley's Niel Loebig, Bishop Canevin's Darren Schoppe and Craig Aguglia at Carrick in the City League.
Players to watch
Shai McKenzie, Washington -- McKenzie will likely have multiple 200- and 300-yard rushing performances, but will it be enough to help Washington return to Heinz Field for the second year in a row?
Troy Apke, Mt. Lebanon -- A Penn State recruit, Apke is one of the best wide receivers in the state. As a junior, he caught 54 passes for 1,048 yards and 14 touchdowns. Apke will be working with a new quarterback, but look for him not to skip a beat.
Jimmy Wheeler, West Mifflin -- The kid his teammates call "Wheels" is the second-leading returning rusher in the WPIAL. He broke a school record last season by rushing for 2,226 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Brett Brumbaugh, South Fayette -- A year from now, there might be a lot of hype surrounding Brumbaugh potentially breaking his brother Christian's WPIAL career passing yardage record. For now, he'll take aim at opposing defenses with a deep group of receivers at his disposal.
A coach's take on Clairton
We'll get our first official look at Clairton's newest crop of talent when it plays host to Chartiers-Houston in the season opener. Clairton, though, gave a sneak peak of what its team will look like when it faced Keystone Oaks in a scrimmage last Saturday.
Keystone Oaks coach Matt Taylor is no stranger to seeing Clairton first-hand -- his team also scrimmaged the Bears last season -- and said he came away very impressed with the wealth of talent the Bears have yet again.
"They look like the Clairton that everybody knows and loves from the past four years," Taylor said. "They look very similar to the WPIAL and state title teams. They're going to do their share of damage this year."