State Preview: WPIAL teams could show their muscle again this season

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The 2005 season ended proudly for the WPIAL, and the league goes into the 2006 season with its chest out.

Three teams from the WPIAL are ranked No. 1 in the state in the Post-Gazette preseason rankings. They are Central Catholic (Class AAAA), Thomas Jefferson (Class AAA) and Greensburg Central Catholic (Class AA).

In Class A, Southern Columbia is No. 1, but WPIAL member Rochester is ranked No. 2.

The WPIAL is coming off a highly successful 2005 season. The league claimed three of the four PIAA championships -- McKeesport (Class AAAA), Franklin Regional (Class AAA) and South Park (Class AA). Since the PIAA championships were started in 1988, the WPIAL has won three titles only once before (2001).

Here is a look at some of the top teams in the state:

Class AAAA
Central Catholic seems to have everything a PIAA championship team needs, from skill, to size, to experience.

No. 2 Woodland Hills knocked off Central Catholic in last year's WPIAL semifinals, and the Wolverines play host to Central Catholic Sept. 22.

Upper St. Clair is another team to watch from the WPIAL. If the PG ranked 10 teams, the Panthers would most definitely be in the top 10.

Some national polls have Harrisburg ranked among the top 30 teams in the country. The Cougars have plenty of talent, just like they have in past years. But they have never been able to make much noise in the postseason.

George Chaump is in his third season as Harrisburg's coach and 48th year overall, including stints as an assistant at Ohio State and the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Harrisburg already had a number of returning starters, including senior Nate Brown, one of the top quarterbacks in the state. Then things got a little better when talented running back Daries Hodge transferred from Glen Mills.

North Penn has turned into a perennial power in the Philadelphia suburbs and should be strong again. North Penn lost to Bethlehem Liberty in last year's semifinals.

Liberty, which lost to Mc-Keesport in the PIAA final, had some key players graduate, but the team still has quarterback Dan Persa, who has committed to Northwestern. Persa completed 119 of 187 passes for 1,806 yards last season and also rushed for 569 on 99 attempts.

Manheim Township is not ranked in the top five, but is a team to watch for one reason -- quarterback Pat Bostick. A Pitt recruit, Bostick is ranked by some scouting services as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the country. He led Manheim Township to a 9-2 record last season.

Class AAA
No. 1 Thomas Jefferson has two Division I recruits in senior quarterback/receiver/defensive back Dom DeCicco (Pitt), and tight end/defensive lineman Chris Drager (Virginia Tech). Dan Giegerich, a 1,000-yard rusher last year, also returns.

No. 2 Pottsville, the PIAA runner-up last season, returns leading rusher Matt Feeney. Lineman Gary Bardzak has committed to Connecticut.

Hopewell should make some noise this season, returning a slew of starters from a WPIAL playoff team a year ago.

No. 4 Erie Strong Vincent has one of the best all-around players in the state. Maurice Williams plays quarterback, but has a number of Division I colleges recruiting him as a receiver. Pitt and Penn State have offered him scholarships.

Strong Vincent lost in the District 10 championship last year to General McLane, 23-20. General McLane is a team to watch again because of standout running back Drew Astorino.

At Berwick, it will seem strange to look on the sideline and not see George Curry. He resigned in November after 35 years as coach, but he's the new coach at Wyoming Valley West. Curry, who won six PIAA titles at Berwick, also coached at Lake-Lehman before Berwick and is the winningest coach in Pennsylvania history with a 387-83-5 record.

Class AA
Two WPIAL teams -- Greensburg Central Catholic and Aliquippa -- are ranked 1-2. No. 3 Wilson lost in the PIAA final last year to South Park and should be strong again because of quarterback D.J. Lenehan (6-3, 204). He threw for more than 2,700 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.

Perennial power Mount Carmel has quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, who burst on the scene last year as a freshman, throwing for more than 1,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. One of Mount Carmel's other top players is tight end Mark Ambrose, who has committed to Virginia.

Class A
Here's a big surprise. Southern Columbia is ranked No. 1.

The Tigers have won four PIAA championships in a row and been in the title game 10 of the past 11 years. They have two Division I recruits -- fullback Henry Hynoski (Pitt) and lineman Josh Marks (Penn State). Hynoski rushed for 2,186 yards last season and had more than 200 in the PIAA final against Duquesne.

"I think this team has a chance to be the best one since I've been here," said Hynoski, a varsity player since his freshman year.

Rochester has been in the PIAA title game five of the past eight seasons and met Southern Columbia in the final five times. Come mid-December, the two could meet again as Rochester is ranked No. 2.

Two other Western Pennsylvania teams are in the top five, including WPIAL member Clairton.



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