The season hasn't even started and Woodland Hills is dealing with adversity.
On Aug 12, Marcel Farrish, who rushed for 1,857 yards last season, was arrested and charged in an incident involving a stolen car and foot chase in North Braddock. He waived his right to a preliminary hearing and will be arraigned Nov. 17. Farrish his status for the season is uncertain.
Then last week, senior Rob Gronkowski, one of the top tight end prospects in the country, had two hearings regarding his transfer from Williamsville North, outside Buffalo, N.Y. The WPIAL determined he transferred for athletic intent and made him ineligible, a ruling the PIAA overturned a few days later. He won't play in the opener Friday at Mt. Lebanon because of a five-day suspension for an inappropriate e-mail sent to a faculty member at his former school, but will be in uniform afterward.
Despite these miseries, Woodland Hills appears to be the top team in the new Big East Conference, which also features stalwarts Gateway and Penn Hills.
The Wolverines are No. 2 in the Post-Gazette's WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA preseason rankings, behind Central Catholic. Coach George Novak's team has the size, speed, experience and talent to contend for the championship.
"We're keeping our minds away from negative things," said Mike Dykes, a two-way lineman and a senior captain. "We know what's going on, but our spirits are high. I feel really confident in this team."
He should. Woodland Hills has been one of the premier programs in Western Pennsylvania for the past decade. In those 10 seasons, the Wolverines won four WPIAL titles and finished second twice, including last year. They made the playoffs all 10 years and had nine winning seasons.
Their lofty ambitions for this season don't hinge merely on tradition, though. Woodland Hills is a college recruiter's paradise, a virtual assembly line of Division I athletes. This year is no different.
Dykes, a 6-foot-4, 275-pounder, recently gave a verbal commitment to North Carolina. He is the only current Wolverines player to have cast his lot, but others are expected to do so.
On a preseason questionnaire distributed to WPIAL and City League coaches by the Post-Gazette, Novak designated 11 of his players as major-college prospects. All are seniors except tight end-defensive end Noah Taylor (6-3, 210), a junior.
Farrish is among them. It is uncertain who will replace him if he does not play, but a number of candidates are in the running.
"We definitely have a lot of speed," Dykes said.
Woodland Hills is fortified at the offensive skill positions. Three players recruiters most covet are quarterback Vondre Griffin (5-10, 170) and receivers Brandon Watters (6-0, 175) and Rontez Miles (6-2, 190). All are defensive backs as well.
Devan Johnson (6-1, 232), a tight end-linebacker, is considered a prime recruit, too.
Dykes acknowledges that Penn Hills and Gateway will be formidable conference foes, and that Central Catholic of the Foothills Conference is strong. But he hungers for success.
"We know those teams bring a lot to the table," he said. "But we feel we can stand up to them. We feel we bring a lot to the table, too."
Big East Data
TEAM TO BEAT
Woodland Hills This has been a preseason of distractions for the Wolverines. The transfer and eligibility issue of TE Rob Gronkowski and the arrest of RB Marcel Farrish cast a collective pall over camp. But there is a wealth of Division I-caliber talent, making Woodland Hills the favorite in the new Big East Conference. There is a quality group of seniors, led by North Carolina recruit Mike Dykes (OL/DL 6-4, 270), plus Brandon Watters (WR/DB 6-0, 175), Devan Johnson (TE/LB 6-1, 232) and Vondre Griffin (QB/DB 5-10, 170).
Gateway The Gators are young and might be a year away from contending for a WPIAL title. But senior Jon Ditto (WR/LB 6-4, 221), a Penn State recruit, leads a talented group that includes juniors Eric Livsey (RB/LB, 6-1, 192), Shayne Hale (FB/LB, 6-4, 226) and Cameron Saddler (RB/DB, 5-8, 161).
Penn Hills Inexperience concerns coach Neil Gordon. But senior Joe Rash (TE/DE, 6-3, 250) is poised for a breakout season, and so are classmates Aaron Williams (RB/LB, 6-1, 212) and Carlos Scott (WR/DB, 5-10, 170).
Fox Chapel Seniors John Sasson (LB, 6-2, 245) and James Seurs (OT, 6-3, 270) will spearhead the Foxes, who have finished last in their conference the past three years.
Kiski Area The Cavaliers will have something in common with the Atlanta Falcons -- a strong-armed quarterback named Vick. Junior Josh Vick (6-3, 200), the reigning PIAA Class AAA javelin champ, will start for a young team with size.
Plum The Mustangs, a playoff qualifier once in the past four seasons, has a proficient offensive line featuring seniors Jeff Bailey (C 5-11, 195) and Eric Castello (T 5-11, 220).
FIVE TO WATCH
Jon Ditto, Sr., Gateway, WR/LB, 6-4, 221; Mike Dykes, Sr., Woodland Hills, OL/DL, 6-4, 270; Joe Rash, Sr., Penn Hills, TE/DE, 6-3, 250; Shayne Hale, Jr., Gateway, FB/LB, 6-4, 226; Rob Gronkowski, Sr., Woodland Hills, TE, 6-6, 250.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Woodland Hills at Gateway, Oct. 6.
Rick Shrum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1911.