Team to Beat
West Allegheny -- Bob Palko pulled off perhaps his best coaching job to date last season, leading a team with few discernible stars to a WPIAL title. This year, the key components of the Indians' dangerous wildcat offense -- running backs Chayse Dillon, Armand Dellovade and quarterback Tory Delmonico -- are back, along with more traditional passer Andrew Koester. In a wide-open classification, the chances of repeating look pretty solid.
Central Valley -- Robert Foster is catching passes 800 miles south at Alabama, but the Warriors still return a good deal of talent. Jordan Whitehead, who rushed for 918 yards at 8.7 yards per carry in 2012, is only a junior and a few linemen are back from a defense that allowed fewer than 20 points per game. Replacing Foster is a tall order, but this should be West Allegheny's toughest challenger.
New Castle -- Senior wide receiver/defensive back Malik Hooker, who committed to Ohio State, quickly emerged as one of the WPIAL's top prospects last season but there's a lot more to this team. In all, the Red Hurricanes return 18 starters from their 4-5 squad (nine apiece on offense and defense).
Montour -- Like Central Valley, the Spartans have to replace a star receiver in Devin Wilson, but they are a well-coached team under Lou Cerro that has enough returning players in place to be near the top of the conference. Leading passer Tynen Greer is back for his senior season.
Blackhawk -- The Cougars finished a disappointing 3-7 last season, but their record is a little misleading. Four of their losses came by a combined 11 points and they return one of the top quarterbacks in the area in senior Chandler Kincade, who threw for 2,220 yards in 2012.
Hopewell -- Understandably, the Vikings struggled at times in the first year of the post-Rushel Shell era. However, running back Tyler Ishman is coming off a promising sophomore season in which he averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
Ambridge -- The Bridgers had their best winning percentage since 2007 with a 3-6 record last season, but lost their leading passer and rusher to graduation.
Moon -- The Tigers tied Chartiers Valley for last place in the conference in 2012, going 2-7 overall, 1-7 in the Parkway. Running back Anthony Colaianni gained 998 yards on 133 carries, he isn't ready to play yet due to an offseason injury .
Chartiers Valley -- The top two rushers graduated, but the quarterback-wide receiver tandem of Josh LaPiana and Andreo Coury should ease the transition for new coach Niel Loebig.
Team to beat
Mars -- Though there are holes to be replaced on the lines, it's hard for any team in the conference to compete with the Planets' talent at the skill positions. After a breakthrough sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,687 yards and 7.5 yards per carry, Josh Schultheis is back to anchor the offense, along with quarterback Owen Nearhoof. This team could be primed to outdo its WPIAL quarterfinal appearance last season.
Franklin Regional -- Nipping at Mars' heels are the Panthers, who finished 8-3 last season before falling in the WPIAL quarterfinals. Gone are two important offensive pieces -- running back Dane Brown and quarterback Nico Lodovico -- but there still is talent on the roster. Senior Charan Singh, who led the team in receiving last year, will play quarterback this season.
Hampton -- The Talbots lost their leading passer (Jon Nigro) and leading rusher (Anthony Bianco) to graduation, but wide receiver Eddie Edwards is back after averaging 19 yards per catch last season. While it might be unrealistic to expect a duplicate 7-2 regular season, this will be among the conference's top teams.
Knoch -- The Knights have a lot to replace with the graduation of their two most productive offensive players -- running back Ben Tackett and quarterback Dakota Bruggeman. But this is a program that has had to fill holes in the past and still went 28-6 the past three seasons.
Indiana -- The Little Indians might be a surprise, as two opposing coaches listed them as the third-best team in the conference. They return a majority of their players from last season, including starting quarterback Sean Thompson and their two leading receivers.
Highlands -- A team that could be among the contenders by the end of the season, the Highlanders lost only five seniors from their 2012 team that finished 4-5 and won four of its final five games. The team has dedicated its season to teammate Ryan Richards, who died in a vehicular accident last month.
Hollidaysburg -- Seven starters are back from a team that went 3-7 last season before losing in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs. Homer DeLattre enters his first season as coach.
Greensburg Salem -- Dan Walters and Dominique McKinley are among the top players back for a Golden Lions team that scored 15 points per game en route to a 2-7 record.
Derry -- The Trojans lost their leading passer, rusher and receiver from a team that finished 1-8 and gave up 44.4 points per game, the worst mark in Class AAA.
Team to beat
Thomas Jefferson -- Yes, the Jaguars lost a productive quarterback-wide receiver duo in Joe Carroll and Zach Schademan, but there's no reason to think they'll be in any kind of rebuilding mode. Consider this -- the Jaguars have had a different starting quarterback each of the past five seasons but still went 54-9 in that span. Coach Bill Cherpak's offensive system is as good as any, and with a star in quarterback/linebacker Chase Winovich, a Michigan recruit, this could be the team to beat in Class AAA.
West Mifflin -- Likely no conference race in Class AAA will be as close as the one between Thomas Jefferson and the Titans. After making a run to the WPIAL final last year, West Mifflin brings back speedy running back Jimmy Wheeler, who rushed for 2,226 yards and 29 touchdowns. Experience at a number of key positions could be a concern, as only three starters on offense and five on defense return.
Elizabeth Forward -- One would be hard-pressed to find a more overlooked playmaker in the WPIAL than JaQuan Davidson, and if the Warriors hope to come close to their 6-4 finish last season, they'll need significant contributions from the dual-threat quarterback who accounted for 1,547 total yards in 2012. Overall, they bring back six starters on offense and seven on defense.
Belle Vernon -- Dorian Johnson is no longer there to anchor the offensive line, but the Leopards offense should still be in good hands as leading passer (Travis Snyder) and leading rusher (Anthony Levis) will be juniors. Expect an improvement from last year's 4-6 finish.
Ringgold -- The fulcrum of the offense -- running back Demetrius Louis -- graduated, so the Rams will have to rely more on junior quarterback Nico Law (588 passing yards, 453 rushing yards) to carry an offense that averaged 23.1 points per game in 2012.
Trinity -- The Hillers went 5-5 last season, but duplicating that could be challenging. Seventeen seniors graduated and leading rusher Patrick Frey transferred to McGuffey.
Uniontown -- Dual-threat quarterback Xavier Ellis looks to follow up a junior season in which he was a large part of the offense, passing for 670 yards and rushing for another 464 yards.
Laurel Highlands -- After finishing 1-9 last season, the Mustangs return nine starters (five on offense, four on defense), a group of players led by Jimmy Pierce, Dontay Jacobs and Will Benesh.
Albert Gallatin -- The Colonials were winless and were outscored, 341-58, in 2012 but return a good deal of their starters -- seven on offense and eight on defense.hsfootball
Craig Meyer: email@example.com