Clairton coach Tom Nola knows he has a team overflowing with talent this season.
If you don't believe him, ask coaches of teams who have the unenviable task of trying to shut down the Bears machine that just churned out a 15-1 WPIAL title season and returns seven offensive and 10 defensive starters.
In a questionnaire filled out by conference coaches, all the responding coaches in the Black Hills Conference had Clairton pegged first. When the coaches were asked who they considered the top players in the conference Avella coach Frank Gray responded "Clairton's starting 11." Fort Cherry coach Tim Garry agreed writing "Clairton's team."
The Bears defeated Avella, 56-0, and Fort Cherry, 55-7, last season. Scores like that were commonplace for Clairton, which only allowed 23 points to opponents in the regular season and scored at least 37 in all nine regular-season games.
Teams in Class A have to be bracing for similar results this year as Nola brings a team into the season that is immensely talented even by Clairton's lofty standards.
The one Achilles' heel for the Bears, something that has been a consistent problem, is offensive line depth. Of the four offensive starters who graduated from last year's team, three were linemen. The thin ranks on the line never really affected Clairton last season but it is a concern to Nola once again.
"We have tons of skill people but the linemen ... we are short on again," Nola said.
Four-year starters David Spence and Taylor Wright will be sorely missed. The onus will fall on sophomore center Carvan Thompson, junior tackle Chanze James and junior guard Marquis Norris.
Even with a shaky offensive line, the Clairton skill-position players can still produce.
"What happens a lot with us is that our running backs just need a little crack and they can make a big play," Nola said.
Junior Desimon Green will take over at quarterback and be surrounded by weapons. Senior running back and Division I prospect Deontae Howard (5-9, 170) returns to the backfield and Pitt recruit Kevin Weatherspoon (5-11, 175) will line up at wide receiver.
"The hardest thing will be like any other year," Weatherspoon said. "The only team beating us will be ourselves.
"With rankings coming out and people ranking us number one, that is the scary thing. That can get to someone's head. They can slack around and think we are the best and just like that, we can lose just like what happened against Springdale."
Weatherspoon was referring to a game his sophomore year. The Bears had easily trounced Springdale during the regular season, 26-0, completely shutting down the Dynamos offense, but in the second meeting in a WPIAL Class A semifinal Clairton was stunned by Springdale, 22-21, just one game away from Heinz Field.
The Springdale game was a major lesson for Weatherspoon and the seven other seniors on the Clairton roster. Even last year the Bears nearly avoided a major upset in the WPIAL title game. Clairton managed to outlast Monaca, 12-6.
As scary as the offense may be to opposing defensive coordinators, the defense should once again be Clairton's strength. Ten defenders are back from a defense that did not yield a point until the third game of the season, shut out eight teams, including three in the playoffs, and held its first 14 opponents to seven points or fewer.
Four-year starter Eddie Ball is the key player on defense at middle linebacker. Junior Josh Page has had a good camp and will move into a starting role at cornerback after being a spot starter last season. Page will play both ways, starting at wide receiver on offense.
"There may be a little bit more pressure and expectations this season," Nola said. "The expectations are a little bit higher than normal.
"Our kids know if they want to reach their goals, they need to focus and work hard."
Clairton's Deontae Howard heads down field on a 71-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of the WPIAL A final last season.