WPIAL Class AAA preview: Familiar favorites, but some new contenders

| FORECAST BY CRAIG MEYER


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BIG NINE

Team to beat

Thomas Jefferson -- When a team loses its most important players, there's little reason to think it will be as good. With a program such as Thomas Jefferson's, such thinking can be ignored. Despite losing do-everything star Chase Winovich, Bill Cherpak's team will still be among the best in the class. The Jaguars still have many returning starters, particularly on offense, where running back Austin Kemp and offensive lineman Jake Guinn are among the returness. Thomas Jefferson has missed the WPIAL semifinals once in the past 16 years, and there's little reason to think they won't be back there again this year.

Contenders

Ringgold -- The Rams have as good a chance as any to surprise Thomas Jefferson, largely for a pretty simple reason -- they likely have the conference's best player, senior quarterback Nico Law, who threw for 1,494 yards and ran for another 1,210 last season. RB-LB Chacar Berry (563 rushing yards) and DE Aaron Szkal also are among eight offensive and seven defensive starters returning.

West Mifflin -- Stud running back Jimmy Wheeler, who led Class AAA in rushing the past two seasons, has graduated, but there's still some talent at the skill positions. Quarterback Karlyn Garner and his top two receivers, Kevin Garbark and Javon Gibson, are back. There might be a step back after a 9-2 season, but coach Ray Braszo's Titans should still be one of the conference's best teams.

Belle Vernon -- Matt Humbert takes over as coach after leading Ringgold to four consecutive WPIAL playoff appearances. After missing last season with an injury, running back Anthony Levis -- who rushed for 1,136 yards in 2012 -- is back. So is QB Travis Snyder, who missed most of last season with a knee injury. Devin Hannan is one of Class AAA's best linemen.

The others

Elizabeth Forward -- Quarterback/cornerback Jaquan Davidson is gone, so the Warriors lose much of what gave them their punch the past few seasons. Still, four starters are back on the offensive line, as well as running back Ryan Wardropper.

Uniontown -- The Red Raiders lost a significant chunk of offensive talent from a team that finished 3-6 last season. Quarterback Xavier Ellis and running back Doug Lewis graduated. Senior Lyric Ellis was a first-team all-conference defensive back last season..

Albert Gallatin -- The Colonials have five returning starters on offense and seven on defense, so there is room for improvement from a 2-7 record. Hunter Moody returns at QB and the line has 6-3, 340-pound Trey Cavaliere as well as returning starters Jake Boyd and Hunter Matthews..

Laurel Highlands -- Coach Zack Just takes over a Mustangs team that should be better than its 1-9 mark in 2013. Fourteen starters return, including leading tackler James Isler, quarterback Jimmy Pierce, running back Jason Leone and receiver Chad Livingston.

Trinity -- The Hillers disappointed last season, finishing 1-8 after having made the playoffs seven times in the previous eight years. There is reason for hope, though, with seven starters back on offense, including quarterback Forrest Cullings, who threw for nearly 1,200 yards last season.

GREATER ALLEGHENY

Team to beat

Mars -- Coach Scott Heinauer has turned the Planets into one of the powers in this classification and they are expecting big things this season. Running back Josh Schultheis rushed for 1,645 yards and scored 25 touchdowns TDs last season and has more than 3,300 yards for his career. The lines should be strong, led by 6-4, 390-pound Marshall Robinson, Gabe Spurlock and John Castello.

Contenders

Gateway -- It's a transitional year for the Gators in every way possible. The team will have to replace a litany of talented seniors from last year, but it was surprisingly able to lure ultra-successful coach Tom Nola from Clairton. Nola inherits a largely inexperienced team, but the Gators do return linemen Dominic Scassera, Hunter Dale, Robert Hainsey and Alex McCollum and the move down from Class AAAA to Class AAA should make things notably easier.

Franklin Regional -- Four starters are back on a defense that gave up 10.3 points per game last season, a group led by two-way star Brett Zanotto, a Maryland commit. It's a team that's admittedly young and breaking in a new quarterback, with the graduation of Charan Singh. Jake Pickup and Charlie Mazon return on the lines.

Indiana -- Following a surprise run to the WPIAL playoffs last season, the Little Indians should again be among a core group of contenders in the conference. Six-foot-four receiver Riley Stapleton is among the best players in the Greater Allegheny, coming off a junior season in which he had 702 receiving yards and averaged 14 yards per reception.

The others

Knoch -- The Knights rate as a darkhorse in the Greater Allegheny Conference, even though they will return 19 of 22 starters from a 4-5 team. QB Daniel Farinelli threw for 1,175 yards last season and RB Cody Milson rushed for 854.

Hampton -- Quarterback Nick Grabowski will look to build on a promising junior season, one in which he threw for 1,368 yards and 16 touchdowns. Protecting him will be an offensive line with four returning starters.

Hollidaysburg -- The Golden Tigers went 3-7 last season, but they bring back 17 starters (eight on offense, nine on defense). Senior Zach Simpson will anchor both lines.

Greensburg Salem -- The Golden Lions return only four full-time starters from last season, one in which they finished 3-7. Brady Mason, who split time under center in 2013, takes over at quarterback.

Yough -- Coach Mark Crovak has described this season as a rebuilding one for the Cougars, but there is some reason for optimism as the program makes the jump to Class AAA. Led by defensive lineman Tom Server, nine starters are back on defense. Do-everything senior tailback Clayton Waldron (6-0, 205) paces the offense.

PARKWAY

Team to beat

West Allegheny -- It's hard to pick against the Indians. The two-time defending WPIAL Class AAA champions have 11 starters returning, many of whom played instrumental roles in the program's abundant and recent success. Senior Chayse Dillon (6-0, 205) is coming off a junior season in which he rushed for 1,203 yards and averaged an impressive 8.8 yards per carry. Some other key returnees include Andrew Koester (6-4, 190, Sr., QB), Armand Dellovade (6-0, 220, Sr., RB/LB) and Sean Orsini (6-3, 225, Sr., TE/LB).

Contenders

Central Valley -- Jordan Whitehead was arguably the most electrifying playmaker in the WPIAL last season, averaging 8.2 yards per rush and 14.4 yards per reception. Outside linebacker Preston Johnson will anchor a defense that allowed only 7.9 points per game in 2013 and quarterback John George should make strides in his first full season as a starter. If there's a threat to unseat West Allegheny in the conference, this is the best bet.

Montour -- One of the conference's powers in recent years, the Spartans were pegged by numerous coaches in the conference to finish in the top three. A number of key players graduated, but returning are receiver Tyler Carswell and linemen Logan Devoer, Mike Arnold, Zach Jablonski and Jordan Vicheck.

Moon -- The Tigers were one of the biggest surprises in the WPIAL last season, going from 2-7 to 6-4 and coming up five points shy of a spot in the WPIAL quarterfinals. One of the major pieces of that turnaround is gone, however, as running back Cole Blake -- who was third among all players in the WPIAL with 1,766 yards -- has graduated. Twins Nico and Alexi Yarmus are two of the team's five returning offensive starters.

The others

New Castle -- The Red Hurricanes have only three returning starters on both offense and defense. Standout linebacker Pat Minenok also will play QB this year. D'Marqus Blanchard and Stephen Wethli return on the lines.

Ambridge -- The Bridgers have compiled a 13-43 record over the past six seasons, but there's some renewed optimism that comes with new coach Dan Bradley (formerly at Sto-Rox). Only five starters from a 2-7 team are back.

Hopewell -- Only seven starters are back from a squad that limped to a 1-8 record. Tyler Ishman is the team's top returning offensive threat after a junior season in which he had a team-high 10 touchdowns.

Blackhawk -- After failing to qualify for the WPIAL playoffs for the fourth time in the past five seasons, the Cougars will have to replace a Division I quarterback in Chandler Kincade. That assignment will fall to Timothy Mancini, who had 563 rushing yards and 248 receiving yards last year.

Chartiers Valley -- Only three starters are back for the Colts and second-year coach Niel Loebig after a 1-8 effort last season. Jake Collins takes over at quarterback, hoping to right the ship for a program that won eight games in a season as recently as 2009.


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