Last season, Upper St. Clair emerged as a prohibitive early season favorite, and for a good reason. The Panthers were not even a year removed from a 20-win season and a WPIAL Class AAA championship.
Upper St. Clair made good on those predictions, going 22-2-1 on its way to winning a PIAA championship. So this season, with several key players back from a decorated team, the Panthers will again hope to live up to expectations as the Post-Gazette's preseason No. 1-ranked team.
In all, seven starters return for the chance at a repeat, a group led by senior midfielder Troye Kiernan, who scored 13 goals last season on his way to being named to the Post-Gazette all-area team. Among the other top players on the Panthers are seniors Joel Hart and Pat Miller, as well as juniors Robbie Mertz, Garret Blake and Hayden Bernhardt, the last two of whom anchored a defense that allowed just 11 goals in 25 games last season.
With an experienced group of players, one that will be aided by a contingent of newcomers (37 freshmen tried out for the team), Upper St. Clair should be well-positioned to win the WPIAL championship it fell short of last year, while capturing the third state title for coach Uwe Schneider.
Even with the Panthers' impressive list of accomplishments, there is a group of teams that should be able to challenge it in Class AAA.
Perhaps the toughest of those competitors will be Fox Chapel, which returns nine starters from a team that finished 13-4-1 last season.
The Foxes bring back a versatile and deep group of players at many positions. Junior forward Cole Ryan scored 16 goals last season and senior goalkeeper Jacob Henry recorded 11 shutouts.
"We can hold our own physically this year," said coach Erik Ingram, entering his eighth season with the program. "We have good size to go with our speed."
Canon-McMillan, the defending WPIAL champion, is another team expected to contend. Eight starters are back from the team that finished 19-5 last year, including three players that scored 10 or more goals last season -- senior Corey McCurdy, and juniors Jake Wilcox and Josh Kruczek.
After a 15-3 season that saw it get eliminated in the WPIAL quarterfinals, No. 1-ranked West Allegheny is primed to take its next step forward this season. Eight starters are back for the Indians, most notably junior forward Collin Worst, who scored 22 goals in 2012.
Defender Zach Graziani also returns after being named to the Post-Gazette all-area team, headlining a defense that allowed 10 goals in 18 games.
"You need a little luck here and there, but this is a hungry team," said coach Kevin Amos. "We're itching to play this season."
No. 2-ranked South Fayette had an 11-win turnaround last season -- going from 3-12-1 to 14-6-1 -- before falling in the WPIAL semifinals to Hopewell.
Goalkeeper Alex Gedrys, who registered 11 shutouts, is back, as are six other starters for the Lions.
"We're a confident group, but not overconfident," coach Rob Eldridge said. "With luck and no injuries, we'll go deep in the playoffs."
Rounding out the top three teams in the class is South Park. Like South Fayette, the Eagles boast seven returning starters from a squad that lost in the WPIAL quarterfinals.
After an undefeated regular season and a run to the PIAA championship game, No. 1-ranked Sewickley Academy looks the part of the top team in Class A. The Panthers bring back eight starters from a team that went 21-2-1, with senior forward J.P. Bowell looking to build on his 26-goal effort from last season.
Though the lack of experience on defense is a concern, second-year coach Jim Boone feels good about his team's chances, barring the sort of unforeseen obstacles all coaches worry about.
"If we stay healthy, we'll have a solid team," he said.
Greensburg Central Catholic brings back its entire starting defense from last season, when the Centurions made it to the WPIAL championship and PIAA quarterfinals.
No. 3-ranked Carlynton is a relatively young team, but it has a good deal of size and enough experience to make even more progress after going 13-4-2 in 2012.