As a show of team unity, the McKeesport Tigers huddle at the end of a preseason practice session. The Tigers welcome back former coach George Smith, who won two WPIAL and PIAA titles.
By Mike White Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Team to beat
Central Catholic -- The 2012 season ended with the worst playoff loss in school history (38-0 to Upper St. Clair), but this season could have a much happier ending. This team is strong in a number of areas, including the lines, where Terrence Stanton, Steve Wood, Zack DeLuca and Angelo Natter all return. Stanton and DeLuca were first-team all-conference selections. Quarterback J.J. Cosentino threw for only 552 yards last season but is committed to Florida State. Luigi Lista-Brinza rushed for 960 yards and receiver Shafer Swann, son of former Steeler Lynn Swann, led the team in receptions. Defensive back Tre Tarpley and linebacker Niko Thorpe are two to watch on defense.
North Allegheny -- The three-time defending WPIAL champion Tigers won't be as strong as recent years, but still figure to challenge for the conference title. Only three starters return -- receiver-defensive back Elijah Zeise, linebacker Layne Skundrich and lineman Nick James. Zeise is a Pitt recruit, and Skundrich led the team in tackles last season as a sophomore. Quarterback play will be a key.
North Hills -- Jack McCurry retired as coach after 35 years and assistant Pat Carey, a former North Hills player, takes over. The lines look to be the strength, led by Colin Murphy and Elliot King. Alex Danis, Brandon Malick, C.J. Fuchs and Mike Fidago also return on the lines and tight end-linebacker Corey Bopp figures to be one of the Indians' best players. Developing some running backs will be crucial and Kevin Koch could be a big part of the running game.
Pine-Richland -- New coach Eric Kasperowicz has a number of returning starters who played last year as juniors or sophomores. Seven starters return on offense and five on defense from a team that missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Quarterback Ben DiNucci completed 103 of 175 for 1,219 yards last season, and Connor Slomka ran for 1,031 as a sophomore.
Seneca Valley -- This team is weaker than last year's squad that made it to the WPIAL semifinals, but the Raiders still should be competitive. T.J. Holl, son of coach Don Holl, should be ready to take over at quarterback.
Fox Chapel -- The Foxes got a big blow this summer when linebacker Quintin Wirginis, a Pitt recruit, was ruled out for the season with a foot injury. This team has potential to run the ball with success as Nigel Garnett (561 yards), Brandon Mitchell (502) and Carrington Vaughn (232) all return.
Shaler -- Coach Chris Siegle is still looking for his first win after going 0-9 in his first season. With five starters returning on offense and eight on defense, there is hope. Robby Reinheimer led the team in receptions while Lou Iezzi showed promise at running back. Running back-linebacker Tim Nickel is a player to watch.
Butler -- After making the WPIAL playoffs last year for the first time since 1999, the Golden Tornado was hit hard by graduation. Tom Jendesky will take over at quarterback. Defensively, Lucas Dubyak and Jeremy Hanford had more than 40 tackles apiece as sophomores last season.
Team to beat
Gateway -- Now that coach Terry Smith has left and is an assistant coach at Temple, will the success continue? Former Carlynton assistant Don Militzer takes over a team that has five seniors who will play Division I college football. Receiver-defensive back Montae Nicholson has scholarship offers from a couple dozen schools. Receiver Ricky Rogers has committed to West Virginia. Receiver-defensive back Anthony Davis, receiver-defensive back Delvon Randall and tight end-linebacker Brenon Thrift have all committed to Temple. The lines, which are mostly inexperienced, are a question.
Penn-Trafford -- With six starters back on offense and defense, the Warriors could be Gateway's top challenger. Devin Austin and Tom Stinelli were the team's top two rushers a year ago. Adam Polakovsky (offensive line) and John Wilkie (defensive line) were first-team all-conference selections. Linebacker John McElrone led the team in tackles. Brett Laffoon, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound sophomore, will be the new quarterback.
McKeesport -- George Smith is back as coach after three seasons away. In his first stint from 1982-2009, he won two WPIAL titles, two PIAA titles and 197 games. Smith brings back the flexbone offense for the Tigers, but the question is how well will they run it? Smith also brought back some of his former assistants. This team might not be WPIAL championship-caliber, but one that should finish near the top of this conference.
Hempfield -- Second-year coach Rich Bowen guided the Spartans to the playoffs last year and the return of some key skill-position players make this team a definite playoff contender. Quarterback Ty George threw for 1,001 yards last season, but DeLorian Day (458 rushing and 352 passing) also is expected to see time under center. Day was a first-team all-conference defensive back a year ago. Joey DeFloria is a talented running back, rushing for 418 yards in the first half of 2012 before a leg injury ended his season. Max Adams was an all-conference defensive lineman last year.
Kiski Area -- After making the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2006, second-year coach Dave Heavner has the Cavaliers poised to make more noise this year. Nine starters return on offense and defense. Offensive lineman Joey Brungo and linebacker Shane Kuhn were first-team all-conference selections. Lincoln Clayton is a sophomore to watch after leading the team in rushing as a freshman with 579 yards.
Latrobe -- The Wildcats had only eight seniors on the 2012 team, which means this year's squad is loaded with experienced players. Logan Carns is in his third year as the starting quarterback. He also led the team in rushing last season with 543 yards. Luke Monteparte rushed for 363 yards last year as a sophomore.
Connellsville -- The Falcons figure to rely heavily on senior quarterback Jade Maher, who has been a starter since his sophomore year. Austin Brooks will lead the lines. The defense must improve after giving up an average of 33 points a game last season.
Norwin -- The Knights won only two games last year, but coach Art Tragesser's team does have promise and one of the reasons is sophomore quarterback Nick Amendola, who started last year as a freshman. Linemen Garrett Cockeram and Luke Milcic, Billy Zatezalo (RB-LB), Logan Deri (WR-DB) and Devin McCurdy (OL-LB) are other returning starters.
Altoona -- After winning only three games the previous two years, the Lions made the WPIAL playoffs last year and finished 4-6. But coach John Franco's team was decimated by graduation. Linebacker Kevin Givens, linebacker Colby Fink and defensive back Tyler Wray are the only returning starters.
Team to beat
Woodland Hills -- The Wolverines are inexperienced at some line positions, and they will have a new quarterback. But overall, this is a team that could give coach George Novak his seventh WPIAL title (five at Woodland Hills and one at Steel Valley). Dan Gibson, Jim Rooney and Kevin Sullivan are top returning linemen. Trevon Mathis and Chris David are promising at receiver-defensive back. Donte Broadus returns at linebacker. The running game will be led by Miles Sanders, who showed much promise last year as a freshman, rushing for a team-high 738 yards on 129 carries. Senior Harry Randall and sophomore Jeremiah Jones battled at quarterback in preseason camp.
Upper St. Clair -- With experience and talent at many positions, the Panthers are one of the best teams in Class AAAA and open the season at Woodland Hills. Ben Huss is one of the top linemen in Class AAAA. Tight end-defensive end Rori Blair is a Pitt recruit. He did not play last year because of a life-threatening stroke, but doctors have cleared him for this season. Linemen Zach Morris and Robert Plummer, running backs Mac Pope and Steve Mackowick, linebacker Kyle Page and defensive back Morgan Lee also are back. Mackowick rushed for 528 yards last season and Pope 328.
Bethel Park -- The Black Hawks have a number of returning starters, led by offensive lineman Mike Grimm, who has committed to Pitt. Ryan Sosnak is another top lineman. Zac Enick led the team in rushing last season (696 yards) and quarterback Levi Metheny (son of coach Jeff Metheny) threw for 1,071 yards and rushed for 375 last year as a freshman.
Mt. Lebanon -- The Blue Devils must replace quarterback Tyler Roth, a member of last year's Fabulous 22. But there is still talent on this team. Receiver Troy Apke, a Penn State recruit, caught 54 passes last year. Alex Bookser is one of the most heavily recruited offensive linemen in the state. Pitt, Penn State, Alabama and Ohio State are among his final list of colleges. Jake Rolfsen rushed for 348 yards last season as a sophomore.
Peters Township -- This could be the sleeper team in the conference. With seven starters returning on offense and defense, the Indians could make some noise. Junior quarterback Cory Owen threw for 715 yards and rushed for 412 last year. Marcus Ubinger rushed for 415 yards and averaged 10 yards a carry. Linebackers Cody Sheetz and Kenny Ward, and lineman Greg Watts lead the defense.
Penn Hills -- Second-year coach John Peterman will try to improve the Indians, who missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2007. Junior running back Denzel Sherrill rushed for 422 yards on 78 attempts as a sophomore.
Baldwin -- New coach Pete Wagner has one of the top junior prospects in the WPIAL in 6-8, 300-pound lineman Sterling Jenkins, who already has Division I scholarship offers. Quarterback Doug Altavilla threw for 843 yards last year and Nick Barca looks to be the featured running back with the graduation of Dorian Brown, who rushed for 1,059 yards in 2012. Seven starters return on defense.
Plum -- New coach Matt Morgan, a former Pitt lineman who played briefly in the NFL, takes over a team that has lost 16 in a row. Five starters return on offense and seven on defense. Kyle Smecker showed some promise last season at running back. Will Fuhrer takes over at quarterback. Morgan plans to play some sophomores, including 6-3, 230-pound Zach Nolan (TE-DE) and 6-5, 340-pound Jake Tecak (OT-DT). Nate Turchick (FB-LB) and Zach Martin (RB-LB) are among the top returnees.
Canon-McMillan -- New coach Ron Coder, a former Penn State and NFL player, takes over a program that has won only two games the past three seasons but eight starters return on offense and defense. Jules Gdovic rushed for 220 yards last season. Alex Paulina is a 6-3, 280-pound junior lineman who has been a starter since his freshman year. Dylan Dzikowski (WR-DB) and Justin Mattola (RB) are among the other top returnees.