Whether it be on the football field, in the NCAA basketball tournament or in life itself, there's always a lot of rooting interest for the underdog, the team or person that attempts to defy all odds and buck all trends to accomplish big things.
The 2012 season saw several teams from the East Xtra area thrive in that role by putting together surprisingly good seasons, and in the process inched their programs closer to where they want them to be.
Just one year earlier, Valley, Hempfield Area and Kiski Area went a combined 2-24. Last season, Valley not only snapped a 22-game losing streak, but went 6-4 and made the WPIAL playoffs. Hempfield ended a string of back-to-back one-win seasons to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Kiski Area earned its first postseason bid since 2006.
The last thing any of those three teams want to do is lose the momentum and fall back down the success ladder. Luckily, all appear poised not only to match last season's results, but exceed them.
Valley might have been the WPIAL's biggest Cinderella story. The Vikings had gone 0-17 and were outscored, 662-162, the previous two seasons, but ended their lengthy losing streak in Week 1 and went on to finish fourth in the Class AA Allegheny Conference.
This season, second-year coach Chad Walsh has set a goal of placing in the top two of the conference, which would allow the Vikings to host a first-round WPIAL playoff game. Led by running back Demetrius Houser (1,193 yards and 15 touchdowns last season) and a potential breakout candidate in sophomore slotback D'Aundre Johnson, the Vikings seem to have a good shot.
Shady Side Academy is the conference favorite, but the Indians defeated Valley just 16-6 at home a season ago. In addition, the two other playoff teams from the conference -- Burrell and Freeport -- must replace most of their top players.
Hempfield coach Rich Bowen, who like Walsh is in his second season, guided the Spartans to a 3-1 start. The Spartans went on to win just one more game and finish 4-6, but that record might have been much better if it had not been for a rash of injuries that hit the team midseason.
The Spartans are now shooting for their first winning season since 1997. They return many of their top playmakers, including All-Foothills Conference running back Joey DeFloria, quarterback Ty George and versatile performer DeLorian Day, who will see time at quarterback and running back. Max Adams, one of the best linemen in the conference, is also back. If the Spartans can beat visiting McKeesport in the season opener, they will have a good shot of being 4-0 heading into their visit to Gateway on Sept. 27.
Kiski Area's Dave Heavner was another first-year coach who led his team to a big turnaround capped by a WPIAL playoff berth. The Cavaliers went 3-15 from 2010-11, but finished 4-6 a season ago. They tied Hempfield and Altoona for fourth in the Foothills Conference.
Heavner has to like the odds of seeing even more improvement this season. The Cavaliers have nine starters back on both sides of the ball. Running back Lincoln Clayton showed plenty of promise last season as a freshman, running for a team-high 579 yards.
Upper St. Clair at Woodland Hills, 7:30 p.m. Friday -- No. 1 vs. No. 2 in Class AAAA. George Novak. Jim Render. The Wolvarena. There might not be a better way to start the season. No. 1 Woodland Hills ended Upper St. Clair's season last November with a 42-20 victory in the WPIAL semifinals. Woodland Hills forced six turnovers in that game. A player to watch is Upper St. Clair tight end/defensive end Rori Blair, a Pitt recruit who missed last season after suffering a stroke.
Greensburg Central Catholic at Washington, 7 p.m. Friday -- When Washington beat the Centurions in last year's opener, Shai McKenzie rushed for 210 yards and three touchdowns. McKenzie has stated he wants to break the WPIAL single-season rushing record.
Franklin Regional at Mars Area, 7 p.m. Friday -- The first game of the season could ultimately decide the Class AAA Great Allegheny Conference title. Last season, Mars used a 21-17 win at Franklin Regional in the opener to vault to the title.