Parity is the byword when it comes to WPIAL Class AAA football.
Eight teams have appeared at Heinz Field in the Class AAA title game over the past five years.
Montour and West Allegheny are the only teams that have made two title appearances during that stretch. The other teams that have made title appearances in the past five years are Thomas Jefferson, Blackhawk, Hopewell, Central Valley, Knoch and West Mifflin Area.
In fact, the most recent team to win consecutive titles in Class AAA was Thomas Jefferson (2006-08).
Mars Area and Thomas Jefferson claimed outright conference titles last year in the Greater Allegheny and Big Nine Conferences, respectively, while West Allegheny, Montour and Central Valley tied for the Parkway Conference crown.
Following are preview capsules of the teams in the West Xtra region:
Coach Neil Tkatch enters his fifth year as head coach at Ambridge, where his Bridgers have posted a 9-27 record over the past four seasons.
They tied for fifth place in the Parkway Conference last season, but fell short of a playoff berth after losing the tiebreaker. The Bridgers finished with a 3-6 record.
"We have eight starters back on each side of the ball," Tkatch said. "We have a solid balanced team with depth at most positions."
Stephon McGinnis (5-8, 150, Jr.) has moved from slotback to quarterback to replace Nick Santiago. McGinnis rushed for 274 yards and led the Bridgers with 13 receptions for 164 yards. He also completed 5 of 6 passes for 50 yards.
"Stephon is the point guard for our basketball team," Tkatch said. "He was our backup quarterback last year. Now it's his turn to run our offense."
Kody Nichi (6-0, 175, Sr., RB/S) and Javon Tarver (5-8, 175, Sr., RB/CB) return in the backfield. Nichi has rushed for 558 yards and caught 16 passes over the past two seasons, while Tarver rushed for 199 last season.
"We're fortunate to have talented skill players returning," Tkatch said. "We're also fortunate to have three linemen back."
A trio of two-way linemen are Brett Balkovec (6-4, 300, Sr., G/NT), Sebastian Perez (6-2, 275, Sr., G/DT) and Josh Vasko (6-1, 260, Sr., OT/DT).
Two Parkway Conference All-Stars headline the Bridgers defense. Dan Zajac (6-2, 225, Sr., FB/LB) and Khalil Harvey (6-1, 180, Sr., WR/RB/CB) were first-team selections. Keenan Baker (6-5, 220, Jr., OLB) is also back.
The Cougars ended a three-year WPIAL playoff drought last season. They finished in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Parkway Conference, but qualified with its 34-20 win against Ambridge in week nine. The Cougars finished with a 3-7 record after a first-round loss to Mars. Coach Joe Hamilton has a career record of 336-156-11.
Five starters return on offense, including two NCAA Division I recruits: Chandler Kincade (6-5, 225, Sr., QB) and Andy Podbielski (6-4, 235, Sr., TE/DE).
Kincade is a University of Akron recruit who has completed 257 of 433 passes for 3,484 yards over the past three years.
"I've never had a four-year starter at quarterback," Hamilton said. "Chandler is talented enough to play on defense, but I don't want to take a chance on getting him hurt," Hamilton said. "We have to protect him."
Podbielski, a Bowling Green recruit, had 14 catches for 199 yards.
The other three returnees on offense are Brandon Quimby (6-0, 240, Sr., OT/DT), Blaine Yeager (6-0, 225, Sr., OT) and Ben Smith (6-2, 180, Sr., WR/CB). Smith missed most of last season with a shoulder injury.
Podbielski and Smith are returning starters on defense. The others are Cody Bain (6-0, 190, Sr., WR/LB), Brandon McKanna (6-0, 190, Sr., FB/LB), Austin Javens (5-9, 165, Soph., RB/CB) and Tyler Engle (5-7, 155, Sr., WR/FS).
Quimby, Nick Liberty (6-2, 245, Sr.), and Tyler Juba (6-2, 320, Sr.) saw significant playing time on the defensive line.
Three players will be hard to replace. Tailback Cole Chiappialle, 1,494 yards rushing and 49 catches, and receiver Alex Caratelli, 70 catches and 1,220 yards, have graduated. Center/nose guard Tyler Beatrice has transferred to Central Valley.
The Warriors and coach Mark Lyons have posted a 30-8 record in the school's first three years of existence. Last season, the Warriors finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Parkway Conference, then advanced to the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals before a 36-35 overtime loss to West Mifflin.
Seven starters return on offense including four skill players: Jordan Whitehead (6-0, 180, Jr., TB/CB), Anthony Williams (6-1, 190, Sr., WR/CB), Nathan Climo (6-3, 185, Sr., QB) and JaQuan Pennington (5-8, 155, Sr., TB).
Climo completed 65 of 111 passes for 1,080 yards and 10 touchdowns. Whitehead rushed for 918 yards on 106 carries, while Pennington added 573 yards on 101 carries. Williams caught 13 passes for 269 yards.
The other returning starters are D.J. DeMarco (5-11, 225, Sr., OG/LB), Aldo Legge (5-11, 215, Sr., TE/LB) and Josh Collins (5-10, 210, Sr., OG). Collins was the center last year, but has moved to guard this year.
"It's encouraging to know that we have depth at a lot of key spots," Central Valley coach Mark Lyons said. "We have a lot of experience back at the skilled positions and at linebacker. Our biggest concern is to fill holes on the offensive and defensive lines."
DeMarco, Legge, Ricky Zuk (5-10, 200, Sr.) and Ryan Roberson (5-9, 175, Sr.) are returnees at linebacker. Whitehead and Connar McKay (5-10, 170, Sr., SS) are back in the defensive backfield.
The Warriors are also fortunate to have Blackhawk transfer Tyler Beatrice (5-11, 265, Sr., C/NG), who was a two-way starter for the Cougars.
"The Parkway Conference is just unbelievable," Lyons said. "It's the strongest conference, top to bottom, that I've ever coached in."
Chris Saluga stepped down after leading the Colts to eight WPIAL Class AAA playoff appearances in 12 seasons. Saluga was the winningest coach in Chartiers Valley history with a 60-61 record during his tenure.
The Colts tied for last place in the Parkway Conference and finished with a 2-7 record last season.
South Fayette graduate Niel Loebig has taken over as head coach. Loebig spent six of the past seven years as an assistant for Jerry Schmidt at Duquesne University. He also spent one season  as head coach at Lely High School in Naples, Fla.
"We had high expectations at Duquesne, and our expectations will be high at Chartiers Valley," said Loebig, a Collier Township resident. "Our expectations will be high in the way we practice and the way we play. We expect our players to do well in the classroom, on the football field and compete for the [Parkway Conference] championship."
Loebig has changed the Colts offensive and defensive schemes.
"We've installed a multiple-type, no-huddle offense that is fast-paced," Loebig said. "We also plan to use multiple schemes on defense."
Loebig is fortunate to have four key players back in quarterback Josh Lapiana (6-3, 190, Sr.), tailback/safety Andreo Coury (5-11, 205, Jr.), offensive lineman/linebacker Ben Kumpf (6-0, 235, Sr.), and two-way tackle Hunter Steel (6-4, 275, Sr.).
Lapiana completed 75 of 183 passes for 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns last season, but is not assured of the starting quarterback spot yet, Loebig said. Coury caught 25 passes for 385 yards, but has been moved to tailback.
"We have three players vying for the quarterback job," said Loebig, noting Jake Collins (6-0, 175, Soph.) and Dom Costello (5-11, 180, Sr.) are also in the mix. "Dom is one of six new players who didn't play last year."
Other players to watch are: wide receiver Anthony Voss (5-10, 175, Sr.), wide receiver Anthony Egnatz (6-1, 180, Jr.), linebacker Jake Paris (6-1, 200, Sr.), and offensive tackle/defensive end Ryan Bush (6-1, 255, Sr.).
The Vikings have qualified for the WPIAL playoffs seven of the past eight years. Last season, Hopewell placed fourth in the Parkway Conference with a 4-4 record. The Vikings advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals before losing to Central Valley and finished with a 5-6 record.
"Our goal every year is to qualify for the playoffs, which is no easy task in the Parkway Conference," coach Dave Vestal said. "Our biggest concern is the graduation losses we had on offense."
Eight members of last year's offense have graduated. Tyler Ishman (5-10, 170, Jr., HB/OLB) is back after leading the Vikings with 596 rushing yards on 103 carries.
"Tyler stepped into the starting role when Adam Murray (553 yards) got hurt," Vestal said. "This year, Tyler is the feature back."
The other returnees are Ryan Calderone (5-11, 220, Sr., LT) and Jim McCracken (6-3, 240, Jr., RT). McCracken started at guard last year, but has moved to tackle.
Ishman is one of six starters back on defense. The others are Spencer Levinger (6-0, 190, Sr., ILB), Deahn Smith (5-8, 265, Sr., DT), Cody McKay (5-9, 170, Sr., CB), Mitchell Bufalini, 6-1, 180, Sr., CB) and Jordan Sabo (6-2, 185, Sr., FS).
"With so many new faces on offense, our defense will have to carry us until the offense catches up," Vestal said.
McKay and Bufalini will split time on offense as the flanker, while Sabo doubles up as a wide receiver.
The Spartans have played at Heinz Field three of the past six years. Montour placed second in the WPIAL in 2007 and 2010, then captured the title in 2011. Coach Lou Cerro's squad finished in a three-way for first place in the Parkway Conference and advanced to the WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinals before losing to West Allegheny. The Spartans finished with a 9-2 record.
All but six starters from that squad have graduated, including WR/CB Devin Wilson, who set school records with 192 catches and 2,653 yards during his career.
"We had 22 kids graduate last year and most of them were starters," Montour coach Lou Cerro said. "We have four starters back on offense, including a pair of two-way starters. They are the only starters we have back on defense."
The two-way starters are Cole Macek (6-0, 225, TB/MLB) and Luc Caliguire (6-4, 250, Sr., OT/DT). Macek rushed for 454 yards on 92 carries last year.
"Cole is a two-year starter who has talent and desire to become one of the best running backs in the conference," Cerro said. "We need Cole to rush for 1,000 yards for us to be successful. On defense, we've moved Cole from end to middle linebacker."
The other starters back on offense are Tynen Greer (6-0, 185, Sr., QB) and Anthony Brandy (5-9, 165, Sr., WB). Greer split the signal-calling duties last season with Ryan Mihelic, who has since graduated. Greer completed 48 of 82 passes for 750 yards and nine touchdowns. Brandy had six catches for 88 yards.
"We have a lot of kids who saw some varsity action last year," Cerro said. "Now they will be stepping into a starting roles."
Three newcomers to watch are D.J. Payne (6-1, 225, Sr., WR), Christian Tanny (5-11, 175, Sr., WR/DB) and Jordan Vicheck (6-2, 265, Sr., OL). Vicheck was the Spartans sixth offensive lineman last year.
The Tigers have had back-to-back seasons of 2-7 in coach Mark Washington's first two seasons at the helm. Washington has seven starters returning on each side of the ball, but the Tigers lack depth.
"We only have 32 kids, so depth is a major concern," Washington said. "And we've already been hit by an injury."
The Tigers top rusher Anthony Colaianni (5-9, 188, Sr., TB) was injured during the spring. Colaianni rushed for 751 yards as a sophomore and 998 last year.
"Losing Anthony hurts," Washington said. "We're hoping to have him back at some point during the season."
Moon has seven starters back on offense, including V.J. Dean (6-0, 189, Sr., WR/CB), Manny Torres (6-1, 217, Sr., TE/DE) and Ian Kelly (6-2, 198, Sr., FB/LB). Dean caught 14 passes for 166 yards last year, while Torres had 13 catches for 165 yards. Kelly rushed for 223 yards and caught 10 passes.
Cole Blake (5-10, 197, Sr., TB) takes over for Colaianni after rushing for 420 yards the past two seasons. Aleksei Yaramus (6-1, 189, Jr., QB) takes over as the signal caller after serving as back-up last year.
Returning starters on the line are Nico Yaramus (6-3, 275, Jr., LT), Torrin Sallis (5-10, 235, Jr., RG), Jon Gilmore (6-0, 227, Sr., C), Charlie Brenner (6-3, 265, Sr., LG/DT) and Josh Todd (6-4, 260, Sr., DT). Brenner was a two-year starter as a sophomore, but did not play last year. Todd was an offensive tackle last year, but has moved to defense.
"Our goal is to rebuild the program," Washington said. "The Parkway Conference is a grind, but we feel we can be competitive."
Torres, Gilmore, Kelly, Dean and Brenner are also back on defense, along with Kyle Bondi (6-3, 186, Jr., CB).
The Indians have qualified for the WPIAL playoffs 15 of the past 16 years under coach Bob Palko. West Allegheny finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Parkway Conference last season, then went on to win the WPIAL Class AAA title. The Indians finished with a 12-2 record after a loss in the PIAA quarterfinals to eventual champion Erie Cathedral Prep.
"This conference is once again the strongest of the Class AAA conferences," Palko said. "Our hope at the end of the journey is to get invited to the playoffs. Once you get there, anything can happen. We proved that last year."
West Allegheny has five starters back on offense, and they are all skill players. Andrew Koester (6-4, 190, Jr.) is back at quarterback after completing 56 of 119 passes for 907 yards.
The Indians top three rushers are also back. Chayse Dillon (5-11, 190, Sr., RB/LB) led West Allegheny with 952 yards on 125 carries. Armand Dellovade (5-11, 195, Jr., RB/LB) accumulated 778 yards on 106 carries. Tory Delmonico (6-1, 202, Sr., RB/LB) added 726 yards on 111 carries.
"It's great to have such a talented group of running backs," Palko said. "We have a senior and two juniors. Each has his own strength. They all bring something different to the table."
The other returnee on offense is two-way starter Nic Daigle (5-9, 175, Sr., WR/FS), who caught eight passes. Dellovade is also back on defense, along with Jake Johnson (5-8, 175, Sr., CB) and Sean Orsini (6-2, 215, Jr., TE/LB).
"Our biggest concern on both sides of the ball is the line," Palko said. "We're young and inexperienced on both lines. Our success will depend on how quickly our lines mature."hsfootball