The Franklin Regional High School football team has been 10 for 10 since moving down from Class AAAA. The Panthers have made 10 consecutive appearances in the WPIAL Class AAA tournament and are hoping to keep the streak alive in 2014.
Last season, the Panthers posted a 7-1 record in the Greater Allegheny Conference and tied with Mars for the title. They advanced to the WPIAL semifinals before losing, 21-12, to West Allegheny, the eventual champion. The Panthers finished with a 10-2 record.
"It's a rebuilding year for us," Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. "We lost 24 or 25 seniors from last year's squad. This year, we have 12, maybe 13 seniors. We may not have a senior starting on the offensive line."
Botta must replace his quarterback, top rusher and top two receivers. The top returnee is Brett Zanotto (6-1, 216, Sr., RB/LB), who rushed for 649 yards on 96 carries.
"Brett is our key player on defense," Botta said. "He's one of the best linebackers in the WPIAL. I would like to use him full-time on offense, but I can't take a chance on getting him injured."
Zach Iovino (6-3, 170, Sr., WR), Jordan Kestler (6-2, 175, Sr., WR/SS) and Brett White (5-9, 180, Sr., WR/CB) all saw significant playing time last year at receiver. Jake Pickup (5-8, 212, Jr., G) and Charlie Mazon (6-0, 260, Jr., C/G) are the only returning linemen.
Zanotto and White will be joined at linebacker by Jake Lauer (6-2, 210, Jr., LB/WR) and Nate Fleck (5-10, 180, Sr., LB/HB). Kestler is the only returning defensive back, and Mazon is the only returning defensive lineman.
Andrew Brinzek (6-1, 175, Sr., QB) and Santino Birty (5-10, 190, Jr., QB) are battling for the right to replace former quarterback Charan Singh, who threw for 924 yards and rushed for 774 yards.
The Gators have a new coach, a new conference and a new classification. The Gators have dropped to the Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference and hired Tom Nola, who led Clairton to six WPIAL Class A titles in seven years and a state-record 66-game winning streak.
"The move to AAA is a good thing, especially since we have such an inexperienced team," Nola said. "All of our top skilled players have graduated and many have moved on to [NCAA] Division I schools. We don't have a receiver who has caught a varsity pass yet."
Nola does have three returning linemen and a running back who saw significant time in the backfield.
The linemen are Robert Hainsey (6-3, 270, Soph., LT), Adam Clark (6-0, 280, Jr., RT) and Hunter Dale (6-2, 260, Sr., RG). The returning running back is Adam White (5-8, 185, Jr.), who will take over as feature back.
"They've always had good teams at Gateway," Nola said. "What I'm trying to instill in them is the same kind of goals we had at Clairton. Even though we'll have a young team with a lot of juniors and sophomores starting, we still are thinking big."
Nola is still looking for a quarterback to replace graduate Jimmy Moore, who threw for 2,351 yards, but believes he has found two receivers who will make an impact: John Horner (6-3, 180, Sr., WR/S) and Aidan Howard (6-4, 170, Jr., WR).
"We have two tall receivers and three experienced linemen to build around," Nola said. "We just need to find a quarterback."
The only full-time starter returning on defense is Alex McCallen (6-4, 240, Sr., DE). Dylan Smith (6-0, 240, Sr., MLB) was a part-time starter for the Gators.
"The players' attitudes have been very positive," Nola said. "They're catching on. For me, it was a little slow in the summer workouts. Gradually, they have caught on to the point where they now are really getting the hang of it."
The Golden Lions posted a 3-5 record in the Greater Allegheny Conference and a 3-7 mark overall in Dave Keefer's debut as head coach. Keefer served as an assistant for eight seasons prior to taking over.
"We lost four games in the fourth quarter last year," Keefer said. "All four games were close and we lost them in the fourth quarter. We have to try to find a way to win those games. They have to learn how to win those close games."
Brady Mason (6-1, 185, Sr.) returns at quarterback after splitting the signal calling duties last year. He completed 27 of 67 passes for 375 yards. Mason also starts at free safety. Tyler Mathias (5-9, 180, Sr.) returns at receiver and will now play both ways, at strong safety.
The only other full-time starters returning are Grant Slezak (6-0, 250, Sr., DT/OG) and Dalton Cuccia (6-1, 240, Sr., OT).
"We don't have many returning starters, but do have kids who saw significant playing time," Keefer said. "They will get a chance to start full-time this year."
A few players who saw significant playing time are: Bobby Stafford (6-0, 225, Sr., LB), Brenden Kelly (6-1, 215, Sr., TE), Conner Forkey (5-8, 170, Jr., RB/FS) and Brandon Lennert (6-1, 165, Sr., WR/CB).
"Our conference is as good as you get," Keefer said. "It's very competitive."
The Cougars were one of the largest Class AA schools in 2013. Now they are the smallest school in Class AAA.
Yough placed third in the Class AA Interstate Conference last year and advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals before losing to Beaver Falls. The Cougars finished with a 6-5 record.
"As the smallest school in Class AAA, our biggest concern is depth," Yough coach Mark Crovak said. "And we're now in possibly the strongest conference in Class AAA. It will be a challenge for the kids."
Quarterback Tyler Donahue has graduated after throwing for 1,514 yards and rushing for 699 yards, but tailback Clayton Waldron (6-0, 205, Sr., TB/LB) is back. Waldron rushed for 898 yards on 162 carries and caught 55 passes for 624 yards. Also back are Eric Borkovich (5-8, 160, Jr., SB/OLB) and Jordan Bryan (5-10, 160, Jr., WR/CB). Borkovich caught 18 passes for 128 yards and rushed for 267 yards on 23 carries. Bryan caught 13 passes for 196 yards.
"Clayton is tremendously talented," Crovak said. "He's big and strong and can run with power."
Also back on offense are: Tobi Kuroda (6-0, 215, Sr., G/LB), Seth Miller (6-1, 220, Sr., G/DE) and Tom Sever (5-11, 230, Sr., TE/DL).
All six offensive returnees are also back on defense. The other returnees on defense are Eric Baer (5-10, 160, Sr.), Ben Baldwin (5-9, 150, Jr., CB/WR) and Rick Jaffre (5-10, 185, Sr., LB).