East Xtra: New season yields lots of questions

Craig Meyer's high school football notebook

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Though the memories of championships at Hersheypark Stadium and Heinz Field may not seem that long ago for local football fans, eight months have passed since a high school football game was played in Pennsylvania.

During that time, players have graduated, coaches have changed jobs or retired, teams have shifted conferences -- and even classifications -- and, from all of those changes, some programs have been fundamentally altered.

With a new season approaching, there are questions, many of which invariably tie back to the changes that took place in the offseason. After all, if everything remained the same, sports would be much easier to predict and, because of that, they'd be much less enjoyable.

How will defending champions fare now that they have the collective attention of all of their opponents, i.e. that dreaded (though sometimes relished) target on their back?

What teams will come out of seemingly nowhere to surprise people and make a prolonged run?

Which players will become stars, the kind who attract major college attention while leading their team to success?

Most pressingly, who will leave Heinz Field in late November with the piece of hardware everyone fights so passionately for throughout the season?

Those kinds of burning questions will be answered at some point once games get underway, but for now, they linger.

They're the kind of quandaries that will come to define the season.

So, with games beginning later this month, it's time to take an early look at those important questions in the East Xtra coverage area:

* How will Tom Nola fare at Gateway?

It's not often you see a WPIAL coaching luminary leave his position for another one at a local high school, but we saw it last year as the 60-year-old Nola left Clairton (and all of the championships he won there) for Gateway. What's even rarer is when a school moves down a class the same year that the coaching change is made, but sure enough, that's the case as the Gators are moving down to Class AAA this season.

Gateway lost a ton of Division I talent from a team that went 8-3 last season in Donnie Militzer's only season in Monroeville, but the move down from Class AAAA should partially make up for that.

Regardless of how things transpire, this will be one of the most fascinating stories to follow this season.

* Is this the year for Woodland Hills?

Few programs in the WPIAL can match the winning tradition at Woodland Hills. In the past several years, though, the Wolverines have been defined not by winning championships, but by "almost" doing so. In three of the past four seasons, including the past two, Woodland Hills has managed to make it to Heinz Field, but each time, it has left without a WPIAL championship to its name.

* So is this the year George Novak and company change that?

They certainly have the firepower to do so. Junior Miles Sanders (Penn State) and senior Art Thompkins (Toledo) give the Wolverines one of the WPIAL's best backfields, and 48 of the 62 players listed on last season's roster are back. There will be tough foes in their way -- including defending Class AAAA champion Central Catholic -- but it's hard not to like Woodland Hills' chances.

* How will the Class A Eastern Conference shake out?

With three teams finishing 10-2 last year, the conference was interesting enough, but it may be even moreso in 2014.

Clairton figures to be one of the favorites to win the Class A title. Monessen loses some key players, but it's a program that routinely churns out good teams. Springdale should be much-improved from a 3-6 finish last season.

The really intriguing part, however, comes with the conference's two newest additions in Jeannette and Greensburg Central Catholic. The Jayhawks and Centurions finished 4-5 and 5-5, respectively, last season, but the move down to Class A should eradicate some of the problems they faced.

Clairton still looks the part of the prohibitive favorite, but what will unfold behind them may make this the WPIAL's most interesting conference.

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