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 South Xtra region:
Belle Vernon Area
Aaron Krepps has led the Leopards to four consecutive WPIAL Class AAA playoff appearances since taking over as head coach at his alma mater. The Leopards tied for fifth place in the Big Nine Conference last season and qualified for the WPIAL playoffs. They finished with a 4-6 record after a 17-16 loss to Central Valley in the first round.
"We have a very small senior class," Krepps said. "We have only six seniors on our roster."
The Leopards top two skill players are back. Quarterback Travis Snyder (6-0, 185, Jr.) has thrown for 1,013 yards and 10 touchdowns since taking over at quarterback midway through his freshman season. Running back/linebacker Anthony Levis (5-8, 200, Jr.) returns in the backfield after rushing for 1,136 yards last season.
The offensive line is also a strength as four of six are back: two-way linemen Austin Fields (6-1, 250, Sr.), Aaron McCullough (6-0, 220, Sr.) and Devin Hannan (6-4, 235, Jr.), and tight end Jake Sweitzer (6-4, 235, Sr.). Field is a four-year starter on the offensive line, while McCullough is a three-year starter.
"We have a lot of experience returning on the offensive line," Krepps said.
Fields, McCullough and Hannan are also returning starters on the defensive line. The only other returnee on defense is cornerback Cody Menges (6-0, 165, Sr.).
"We have quite a few new kids in the mix, and they've got talent, but they lack experience," Krepps said.
The Warriors made a return to the WPIAL playoffs by tying for third place in the Big Nine Conference in Mike LeDonne's second season of his second stint as head coach. The Warriors finished with a 6-4 record after losing to Franklin Regional in the first round of the playoffs.
Quarterback JaQuan Davidson (6-4, 180, Sr.), a McKeesport transfer, was the main reason for Elizabeth Forward's success. He led the Warriors with 1,024 yards and 16 touchdowns, and also threw for 523 yards and four touchdowns.
"We have a lot of returning people, so we're cautiously optimistic," said LeDonne, who has 12 players who saw significant time in the starting lineup last year. "JaQuan changed our dynamic. He made things happen both on the ground and with his arm."
Wide receiver/cornerback Matt Bernadowski (6-2, 164, Jr.) and slot back/safety Ryan Wardropper (6-2, 190, Jr.) are also back on offense. Bernadowski has caught 29 passes for 605 yards over the past two seasons. Wardropper has rushed for 513 yards over the past two seasons.
Others back on offense are guard Jake Brown (5-11, 230, Sr.), tackle Mike Osilka (5-11, 224, Sr.), tight end/nose guard Brandon Janicki (5-10, 225, Sr.), lineman Devon McDonough (6-1, 265, Jr.) and running back Jake Meyers (5-8, 180, Jr.).
"Our goal is to finish among the top two in our conference," LeDonne said. "Thomas Jefferson and West Mifflin are still the teams to beat until somebody knocks them down."
Davidson, Bernadowski, Wardropper and Janicki are back on defense, along with strong safety Jaylen French (5-6, 140, Sr.), free safety Bill Miles (5-11, 178, Jr.), and tackles Pat Maher (5-10, 240, Sr.) and Adam Smith (5-11, 225, Jr.).
In the three years since Matt Humbert took the reins at Ringgold, the Rams have had a 21-10 record and qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs all three years. Ringgold tied for fifth place in the Big Nine Conference last season and qualified for the WPIAL playoffs as the wild card. It finished the season with 4-6 mark after losing to West Allegheny in the first round.
Nico Law (5-11, 175, Soph.) threw for 588 yards and rushed for 453 yards in his debut at quarterback. Tailback Demetrius Louis has graduated after leading the Rams with 889 rushing yards.
"Nico is leaner and taller than his brother," said Humbert, referring to 2011 graduate Quad Law. "Quad was a more dynamic threat within the running game. Nico is more of a passing threat."
Others back on offense are wide receiver/cornerback Alan Pritchett (5-10, 175, Sr.), wide receiver/linebacker Dayshore Majors (6-0, 170, Sr.) and guard Nick Trocano (6-3, 215, Sr.).
"Our biggest concern is the offensive line," Humbert said. "We have a few kids who rotated in a lot last year who will get a chance to start this year."
Majors and Pritchett are two of six starters back on defense. The others are linebacker Matt Kirby (5-6, 185, Sr.), tackle Zack Wooley (6-3, 235, Sr.), cornerback Jake Gerrard (5-6, 160, Jr.) and cornerback/safety Brandon Thomas (5-8, 170, Jr.).
"We have a nice group back on defense, especially in the backfield," Humbert said.
"That was our Achilles' heel last year."
The Jaguars have placed among the top four teams in WPIAL Class AAA 14 of the past 15 years. During this stretch, the Jaguars won or shared 13 conference titles and placed second the other two years. Coach Bill Cherpak's squad won the Big Nine Conference title last season and advanced to the WPIAL semifinals before losing to eventual champion West Allegheny. The Jaguars finished with an 11-1 record.
Two of the Jaguars top skill players have graduated. Joe Carroll thew for 2,407 yards and 38 touchdowns. Zach Schademan caught 98 passes for 1,812 yards over the past two seasons.
"We did lose some of our biggest offensive threats, but we do have most of our line back," Cherpak said. "We have four of five back on the offensive line, and all four are back on the defensive line."
Guard/linebacker Austin Boyd (5-10, 220, Sr.), offensive tackle Cole Costy (6-2, 265, Sr.), two-way tackle Mat Nagy (6-3, 255, Sr.) and Garrett Pahanish (5-10, 230, Sr.) are back on the offensive line.
Other starters back on offense are fullback Luke Deanovich (5-9, 180, Sr.) and wide receiver/safety Zach Talley (5-10, 155, Sr.). Deanovich rushed for 266 yards on only 14 carries last year.
Linebacker Chase Winovich (6-4, 220, Sr.), a Michigan recruit, has taken over at quarterback.
Winovich, Talley, Boyd and Nagy are returning starters on defense. Also back are wide receiver/cornerback Dalton Dietrich (5-11, 160, Sr.), end Corey Payne (6-4, 200, Jr.), linebacker Austin Kemp (5-11, 210, Jr.), tackle Jake Guinn (6-1, 255, Jr.) and end Russell Siess (6-2, 210, Jr.).
"We've got a good nucleus of returning starters and some younger kids who are ready to step into the starting lineup," Cherpak said. "We're very optimistic with the group of kids we have."
The Hillers have qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs seven of the past eight years. In coach Ryan Coyle's debut, the Hillers tied for third in the Big Nine Conference with a 5-3 record.
The Hillers finished with a 5-5 overall mark after losing to Montour in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
Trinity was hit hard by graduation losses.
"We graduated 17 seniors last year and most of them were starters," Coyle said.
The Hillers also lost their top rusher via transfer. Pat Frey, a three-year starter who rushed for 1,963 yards over the past three seasons, has transferred to McGuffey.
"Pat is a good kid," Coyle said. "He was well on his way to becoming Trinity's all-time rushing leader. He will be missed."
The returning starters on offense are Steven Iams (5-11, 197, Sr., OL/LB), Robert West (5-10, 195, Jr., FB/LB), and Nate McIlvaine (6-2, 182, Jr., TE/LB). West was a part-time starter at fullback. McIlvaine has been moved to tight end after playing tackle last year.
Iams and West are among three returning starters on defense. The other is Gage Marry (5-11, 187, Sr., LB).
"Gage is a returning stud," Coyle said. "He's one of our best defensive players and a great leader."
Three others who saw significant playing time are James Rivera, (5-10, 164, Sr., CB), Brandon McGavitt (6-1, 172, Sr., WR/S) and Aaron Britton (6-4, 228, Jr., TE/DE).
Also back is kicker Sam Trapuzzano (5-7, 150, Soph., PK/RB), who connected on three field goals and 19 extra points.
Forrest Cullings (6-3, 190, Jr., QB) has taken over the signal-calling duties. Rylee Yocca (5-9, 164, Jr., RB) and Colton Jordan (5-10, 172, Jr., RB) are hoping to fill the vacancy left by Frey's departure.
West Mifflin Area
The Titans earned a third consecutive WPIAL Class AAA playoff berth last season. They placed second in the Big Nine Conference and advanced to the WPIAL title game before losing to West Allegheny, 34-8. The Titans finished with an 11-2 record.
Quarterback Derrick Fulmore is one of seven starters who have graduated. Fulmore threw for 1,499 yards and rushed for 1,364 yards over the past two seasons.
Jim Wheeler, the top rusher in WPIAL Class AAA last season with 2,226 yards and 29 touchdowns, is one of four starters back for the Titans on offense.
"We went into last season not really knowing what to expect from Wheeler," West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo said. "He certainly exceeded our expectations. He's a strong powerful runner for a little guy."
The other returning starters on offense are fullback John Green (5-11, 180, Sr.), guard/defensive end Tyler Bornak (6-0, 200, Sr.) and two-way tackle Shawn Devey (6-4, 285, Sr.). Green, a good blocking back, rushed for 114 yards on 13 carries last year.
"Karlyn Garner (6-1, 160, Soph.) has stepped into the starting quarterback position after serving as a backup last year," Braszo said.
"Karlyn is a good athlete, but he's got big shows to fill."
Bornak is one of four starters back on defense. The others are tight end/linebacker Colton Weber (6-1, 180, Sr.), slot back/defensive back DiAngelo Mitchell (6-0, 170, Jr.) and linebacker Jeff Foreman (5-10, 190, Sr.).
"We lost a lot, but we should be in the mix," Braszo said. "We will be fighting for a playoff spot."
Chris Saluga stepped down after leading the Colts to eight WPIAL Class AAA playoff appearances in 12 seasons. Saluga was the winningest coach in Chartiers Valley history with a 60-61 record during his tenure.
The Colts tied for last place in the Parkway Conference and finished with a 2-7 record last season.
South Fayette graduate Niel Loebig has taken over as head coach. Loebig spent six of the past seven years as an assistant for Jerry Schmidt at Duquesne University. He also spent one season  as head coach at Lely High School in Naples, Fla.
"We had high expectations at Duquesne, and our expectations will be high at Chartiers Valley," said Loebig, a Collier Township resident. "Our expectations will be high in the way we practice and the way we play. We expect our players to do well in the classroom, on the football field and compete for the [Parkway Conference] championship."
Loebig has changed the Colts offensive and defensive schemes.
"We've installed a multiple-type, no-huddle offense that is fast-paced," Loebig said. "We also plan to use multiple schemes on defense."
Loebig is fortunate to have four key players back in quarterback Josh Lapiana (6-3, 190, Sr.), tailback/safety Andreo Coury (5-11, 205, Jr.), offensive lineman/linebacker Ben Kumpf (6-0, 235, Sr.), and two-way tackle Hunter Steel (6-4, 275, Sr.).
Lapiana completed 75 of 183 passes for 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns last season, but is not assured of the starting quarterback spot yet, Loebig said. Coury caught 25 passes for 385 yards, but has been moved to tailback.
"We have three players vying for the quarterback job," said Loebig, noting Jake Collins (6-0, 175, Soph.) and Dom Costello (5-11, 180, Sr.) are also in the mix. "Dom is one of six new players who didn't play last year."
Other players to watch are: wide receiver Anthony Voss (5-10, 175, Sr.), wide receiver Anthony Egnatz (6-1, 180, Jr.), linebacker Jake Paris (6-1, 200, Sr.), and offensive tackle/defensive end Ryan Bush (6-1, 255, Sr.).