North Xtra: Changing of the guard in Northern 8

Class AAAA


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For the first time since the 1970s, Jack McCurry will not be roaming the sidelines as head coach at North Hills, but in the northern suburban landscape of WPIAL Class AAAA football, two of his best former players and assistants will be.

Former North Hills standouts Pat Carey and Eric Kasperowicz take over as first-year head coaches in the Northern Eight Conference.

Carey takes the helm from McCurry at his alma mater with Kasperowicz at rival Pine-Richland.

Whether it be first-time head coaches Carey or Kasperowicz, or a veteran such as Butler Area's Clyde Conti, every team in the conference is doing the same thing -- chasing North Allegheny.

Last season, the Tigers became the first team to win three consecutive WPIAL Class AAAA titles and capped a 16-0 season with a PIAA championship.

Here's a team-by-team look at the Class AAAA programs in the North Xtra area:

Butler Area

Butler is fresh off its first WPIAL postseason appearance in 14 years but Conti must replace a number of players who helped lead the Golden Tornado to its first playoff game since 1998.

"We had a lot of graduation, but it is not necessarily about the graduation but who replaces the kids," Conti said. "I have been pleased with the summer work ethic from some of the kids."

One player back is first-team all-conference defensive lineman Jacob Hays (6 feet 1, 190 pounds). On offense, Hays will start at guard and junior offensive tackle Eric Hindman (6-2, 185) is another starter back on the line.

The linebackers are an experienced group with juniors Jeremy Hanford (5-10, 180) and Lucas Dubyak (5-10, 180) returning. Junior Reid Werth (5-10, 140) is the lone starter back in the secondary.

Senior quarterback Thomas Jendesky (6-3, 200) played the entire second half of Butler's playoff game last season. He will be joined in the backfield by junior running back Robert Burdine (5-10, 180) and senior fullback Chris Smith (6-2, 215), who makes the move from tight end.

Fox Chapel Area

Fox Chapel enters the 2013 season reeling from one of the most significant offseason injuries in the WPIAL this year.

The Foxes will be without tight end/outside linebacker, Quintin Wirginis. A University of Pittsburgh recruit, he sustained a foot injury when his right foot was stepped on during offseason practice, effectively ending the high school career of this 6-foot-3, 225-pound three-year starter.

The injury exacerbates the numbers problems at Fox Chapel as coach Eric Ravotti only has 37 players on the roster, a very low number for a Class AAAA program.

"That is about one-third what a normal Quad-A team should have," Ravotti said. "It will be a challenge, no question."

The Foxes do return two quarterbacks they used last season, senior Brandon Mitchell (6-6, 205) and junior Billy Urso (5-9, 180). Urso started early last season but after Fox Chapel switched to a zone-read offense midway through the season, Mitchell saw playing time. Mitchell, a standout in track, is more of a threat to run, accumulating 502 yards on 103 carries last season.

"Hopefully we can find a good way to use both of them to help us out," Ravotti said.

The offense returns a number of weapons with leading rusher and receiver Nigel Garnett (5-8, 165, Sr.) back along with his twin brother, running back Chad Garnett (5-8, 170, Sr.), running back Vaughn Carrington (6-2, 185, Jr.), wide receiver Gregory Yaksich (5-10, 170, Jr.) and tight end David Brown (6-1, 215, Jr.).

The offensive line is a big question mark with only Patrick Cullinan (5-11, 250, Jr.) returning as a starter.

Defensively, the Garnett twins will start at cornerbacks with Carrington and Brown at linebacker.

North Allegheny

No WPIAL Class AAAA team had ever won three consecutive WPIAL Class AAAA titles until the 2012 North Allegheny team did it. And perhaps no team has ever had to replace as much talent as North Allegheny in 2013. The challenge for coach Art Walker is to replace 18 starters.

Among the departed are Mack Leftwich, a quarterback who passed for 3,331 yards and 45 touchdowns and rushed for 553 yards; wide receiver Gregg Garrity, who caught 67 passes for 1,240 yards; wide receiver/defensive back Brendan Coniker, a first-team all-conference defensive back and two-year, two-way starter; running back Alex DeCiantis, a 1,287-yard rusher last season; two-way lineman Pat Kugler, a three-year starter who was rated as one of the top offensive linemen in the country; and two-way lineman Jeremy Gonzales, a dominant defensive tackle.

In terms of returning starters, North Allegheny makes up for its lack of quantity with quality. Senior Elijah Zeise (6-3, 196) is a returning two-way starter at receiver and defensive back. Zeise recently made a verbal commitment to Pitt. Junior Layne Skundrich (5-10, 188) is a returning starter at linebacker. On a dominating defense last season that allowed 8.8 points per game, Skundrich was the leading tackler. The third returning starter is senior offensive lineman Nick James (6-4, 235).

Senior running backs Sean Idowu (6-0, 195) and Josh Bergman (5-9, 177) return. Last season, Idowu rushed 53 times for 407 yards and Bergman rushed 54 times for 360 yards. The quarterback race is between senior Cage Galupi (6-4, 170) and junior Jeff Clemens (6-3, 177).

North Hills

Carey takes over the head coaching job after the retirement of McCurry, the third-winningest coach in WPIAL history with 281 wins and four championships. Carey was on McCurry's staff for 19 years, 15 as defensive coordinator. He was also a standout running back/defensive back on the 1987 team that finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today.

Carey inherits five returning starters on offense and four on defense but the Indians must replace a majority of their skill-position players including starting quarterback Brian Johnson, leading receiver Larry Richardson and leading rusher Josh Hulbert.

The team's top skill-position players are seniors Corey Bopp (6-2, 235) at tight end and Kevin Koch (6-0, 220) at running back. Bopp also starts at inside linebacker and Koch starts at safety. The offensive line will be led by seniors, center Brandon Malick (5-11, 255) and tackle Colin Murphy (6-4, 260). Junior quarterback Jake Bruder (5-8, 165) is set to take over under center. Senior defensive end Elliot King (5-11, 200) is one of the top returning starters from a defense that held opponents to 17 points per game in the regular season.

Pine-Richland

Former Pitt quarterback Kasperowicz takes over a program seeking its first playoff appearance since moving up to Class AAAA in 2008. Kasperowicz was offensive coordinator at Pine-Richland the past two seasons for an offense that produced a 1,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher, both of whom return this year. Junior quarterback Ben DiNucci (6-2, 180) passed for 1,219 yards last season and junior running back Connor Slomka (6-0, 205) rushed for 1,031 yards.

DiNucci and Slomka are two of seven returning starters on offense along with senior center Jake Leone (5-10, 265), junior guard John Kohley (6-0, 285) and junior receiver Mike Merhaut (5-9, 165). Pine-Richland will have to replace four all-conference players in running back Brock Baranowski, tight end CJ Jackson, center Pat Kline and wide receiver Luke Merhaut.

On defense, five starters are back: junior defensive tackle Jake Good (6-3, 230), junior defensive backs Brendan Burnham (5-10, 175) and Mike Merhaut and linebackers Joe Lieberman (6-0, 190) and Kwame Akosah (6-2, 190).

Seneca Valley

The Raiders have a lot of holes to fill at offensive skill positions but also have plenty of options to fill them. Fifth-year coach Don Holl must replace his quarterback, four leading receivers and three leading rushers.

The quarterback battle in camp is between senior Mike Jones (6-0, 175) and Holl's son, junior TJ Holl (6-1, 205). A number of players are in the mix at running back including senior Dom DiTommaso (5-7, 160). At receiver, the Raiders have plenty of options with juniors Eric Mrkonja (5-11, 180), Drew Lewis (6-1, 170) and Brad Hensler (5-11, 190) plus senior Max Cicero (6-3, 205). Jones can also start at receiver if not at quarterback. Seniors Brandan Clough (6-3, 225) and Mike Smith (6-3, 210) will see time at tight end. Where Seneca Valley does have experience on offense is the line, where senior tackle Dan Miller (6-2, 250) and senior guard Steve Gaviglia (6-2, 265) return as full-time starters and junior tackle Tyler Hudanick (6-5, 285) is back after being a part-time starter.

Defensively, the Raiders have four starters back: Gaviglia and Miller at defensive tackle, Holl at strong safety and senior Tucker Van Dyke (6-3, 225) at linebacker. Junior Mason Dehart (6-0, 210) was a part-time starter at linebacker.

Shaler Area

Coach Chris Siegle enters Year 2 of his rebuilding project at his alma mater. A young Shaler team was winless last season in Siegle's first year after taking over for Neil Gordon. The Titans return five starters on offense and eight on defense. The offense must replace quarterback Brad Good but last season's leading receiver, junior Robby Reinheimer (6-1, 170), returns as does top returning running back senior Lou Iezzi (5-10, 175). Senior Josh Crawford (6-0, 190) is expected to take over at quarterback. Senior Zach Carney (5-10, 180) and junior Greg Blobner (5-9, 165) are returning starters at wide receiver.

The defense will be anchored by its linebackers, especially junior Tim Nickel (6-0, 220), a second-team all-conference pick last season. The other linebackers returning are senior Ryan Fitzpatrick (5-11, 180), junior Ron Schwartz (6-2, 215) and Iezzi.

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