East Xtra: Mike Caprara has been a starting linebacker -- and a leader -- at Woodland Hills since the middle of his freshman season
Woodland Hills High School senior linebacker Mike Caprara has been a rare three-year starter for the Wolverines.
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A starter since midway through his freshman season at one of the most talent-laden programs in Western Pennsylvania, senior Mike Caprara would be expected to be a respected team leader.
Such an assumption would prove to be accurate -- except for one thing. According to Wolverines coach George Novak, Caprara didn't develop into a leader over time.
"At Woodland Hills, he's been a leader since ninth grade," Novak said. "Seldom do you run into a kid with his work ethic and his natural ability and love for the game. He plays with passion."
Caprara, a middle linebacker and fullback/H-back, also plays with tremendous skill, ability and aptitude.
How much so? Try this: Caprara is the career tackling leader at Woodland Hills, and he has an entire season to play.
Yes, Woody High is a relatively new school that played its first football season in 1987, but the Wolverines have had one of the best programs in the WPIAL since then.
Woodland Hills has won five WPIAL championships and produced dozens of Division I players plus quite a few who went on to the NFL.
Ask Novak, and he'll tell you Caprara measures up favorably against every one of them.
"He's an outstanding player, one of the best players I've had in  years of coaching," Novak said.
Caprara (6-0, 207) is one of only a few players during Novak's tenure at Woodland Hills and, before that, Steel Valley, who has started for at least three years. Novak could name only one off the top of his head, but he figures there likely have been one or two more.
As an example of what underclassmen are up against at Woodland Hills in their quest for playing time, Pitt alone welcomed four from the school into their incoming freshman class this fall.
Also, six Woodland Hills alumni (Jason Taylor, Steve Breaston, Lousaka Polite, Shawntae Spencer, Rob Gronkowski and Ryan Mundy) played in the NFL last season.
"It means a lot to me," Caprara said of being a starter as a freshman through his senior year. "When I came in, [Novak] . . . just told me I had big shoes to fill. My freshman year, we didn't have a lot of depth, so some of us had to step up. I was blessed enough to earn a start at linebacker. That helped lead into my sophomore year, when we won the WPIAL."
Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Caprara was playing varsity football when he was a sophomore. After all, he was born with Woodland Hills football in his blood.
Well, sort of.
He had several family members play for old Turtle Creek Area High School, one of the schools that merged to form Woodland Hills. Five of his great-uncles went on to play at big-time colleges Notre Dame, Penn State, Georgia or Michigan State.
Mike Caprara is beginning to draw the attention of major schools now himself. Pitt and West Virginia are among those recruiting him. National interest would be significantly stronger if he were a smidge taller.
"I think after they see him play this year, it will open up a lot of eyes," Novak said. "Everybody we've played the last couple of years remarks how good a player he is.
"He went up to the Penn State camp, and I think he and [Upper St. Clair's Dakota] Conwell were the best two linebackers up there."
Caprara's contributions to the Wolverines don't end at linebacker. Novak said his workload on offense will increase this season, and Caprara is part of every special team. He even serves as the Wolverines' long snapper.
"Football's just always been such a passion to me," Caprara said. "I started the game at a young age, 6 or 7. My parents introduced it to me.
"Ever since, from midgets through junior high and high school, I've been truly blessed to have the talent to play this great game. I just thank God every day that I have the ability not a lot of people have to play this game."
It sounds as if Novak likewise might be thankful that Caprara is playing for him.
"Michael Caprara is a special kid, a special person, a special football player," Novak said. "He's an honor roll student. He's a hard-nosed, tough kid. He's a throwback."
By Chris Adamski
The order gets shuffled year after year, and there's even been a couple of swappings of schools. But few things in WPIAL football have been more predictable than the top three finishers in the Big East Conference.
Dating back to the final season of the alignment and nomenclature of the Quad East in 2005, some combination of Woodland Hills, Penn Hills and either Central Catholic or Gateway have finished 1-2-3 in the conference for six consecutive seasons. (Central Catholic and Gateway have switched between the Big East and the Foothills conferences; the current incarnation has Central Catholic in the Big East.)
During that span, each school has at least one conference title and at least one appearance in the WPIAL championship game.
In what might be the most telling sign of how strong and balanced these three powers have been, the one that has had the "least" regular-season success, Woodland Hills, has been the best come playoff time. The Wolverines were in third place over half those six seasons and won only one conference title -- but played in two WPIAL finals in that time, winning one.
The Vikings, Wolverines and Indians expect to be in contention for the Big East title again. Plum and Kiski Area remain hungry -- the two teams placed just outside of the big three of the Big East each of the past two seasons.
Of course the Vikings are a conference title contender -- they've lost only two conference games since 2004.
Last season, Central Catholic was undefeated until it was beaten by eventual PIAA champion North Allegheny in the WPIAL semifinals. Seven starters return on offense and six on defense from that team, meaning the Vikings aren't going to "turtle" away from any expectations.
Two important skill-position players from an offense that averaged 30.1 points per game last season have made verbal commitments to the University of Maryland. Perry Hills (6-3, 205, Sr.) completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,580 yards last season, and Anthony Nixon (6-2, 205, Sr.) had 33 receptions for 699 yards.
Central Catholic also boasts one of the top running back tandems in the WPIAL in Damion Jones-Moore (5-7, 180, Sr.) and Luigi Lista-Brinza (5-9, 175, Soph.), who combined for 1,853 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns.
Logan Dietz (6-6, 275, Sr.), Scott Haraczy (6-3, 270, Sr.) and Jake Walther (6-5, 275, Sr.) are key members of hulking offensive and defensive lines. Arnell Farmer (6-0, 185, LB/RB), Louis Taglianetti (6-2, 190, WR/LB), Ed Latimer (5-7, 165, DB) and Juwan Haynes (6-1, 175, DB) are other seniors who return with starting experience.
Don't tell third-year coach Troy Wilson that the Cavaliers haven't qualified for the playoffs since 2006 or had a winning season since 2003. Wilson believes Kiski Area can make the playoffs and even compete for a conference title.
The Cavaliers return six starters on both offense and defense, including seniors Cory Allen (6-2, 250, OT/DE), Jim Bertovich (6-2, 280, OT/DT), Owen Copney (5-10, 180, RB/DB), Chris Zaccagnini (6-0, 215, QB/RB/LB) and Neal Colecchi (6-0, 250, C/DT). J.J. Cosentino (6-3, 200) is an athlete to watch -- he started some games at quarterback as a freshman late last season.
Another player who made an impact as a freshman last season was Adam Mitcheson (6-0, 175). He was already one of the top kickers in the WPIAL, making 25 extra points and two field goals.
Kiski Area entered last year's regular-season finale with a shot at a postseason berth, but lost the virtual playoff game at Plum, 23-14.
It's clear in what area the Cavaliers need to improve if they are to reach their goals. Kiski Area was the third-highest scoring team in Big East conference play (24.8 points per game), but was done in by a defense that was WPIAL Class AAAA's second-worst (37.3 ppg).
The Indians don't have much experience returning. But coach Ron Graham is a big believer in the few veteran players the team does have.
Seniors Corey Jones (5-9, 160, WR/CB), Chaz Whittaker (6-3, 180, WR/S), Treyvon Hester (6-3, 275, G/DT), Malik Blakeman (5-8, 160, CB/HB) and Jaquan Williams (6-1, 170, WR/S) form a core that can help offset the loss of the vast majority of the rest of the team's starters from last season's 5-5 team, which lost to Upper St. Clair in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
"Those are the ones right now showing true leadership and maintaining some consistency with our guys by leading by example," Graham said.
Graham said that Jones, Whittaker and Hester have been garnering interest from Division I colleges.
Darius Holloway (5-11, 140, Jr.) is set to take over at quarterback. "So far in our 7-on-7 and scrimmages, he's shown to be pretty accurate, and he has some mobility," Graham said.
In a somewhat misleading statistic, Penn Hills is out to avoid its third consecutive non-winning season. The Indians, however, have played a tough non-conference schedule and been alive in the conference title race virtually every season for the past decade.
"The goals for this season are we're trying to solidify a competitive team week to week," Graham said, "and strive to have a winning season and get to the playoffs."
The Mustangs are coming off their first winning season since 2001 and return nine players with starting experience for coach Frank Sacco, who took over a team in 2009 that had won a total of six games over the previous three seasons then guided it to a 6-4 record in 2010.
"[We expect] to keep moving forward and playing good, hard fundamental football," Sacco said. "We will have a nice mix of veteran and younger players. Hopefully with the veteran leadership, it will translate into some wins."
Some of that experience is centered around the skill-position offensive players. C.J. Lutz (5-10, 170, Sr., WR) was all-conference last season when he had 45 receptions for 682 yards. Chris Zdinak (6-2, 185, Sr., QB) completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,346 yards, and Tarique Ellis (5-11, 180, Sr., RB/DB) averaged 6.3 yards per carry and rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the two games in which he was the primary ball-carrier.
Zdinak, Lutz and Ellis are being recruited by Division I and II colleges. Other returnees include Jake Diguilio (5-10, 220, Jr., LB/RB), Mike Diguilio (5-9, 160, Sr., WR), Tim Trathowen (6-1, 175, Sr., LB), Taylor Fink (5-11, 250, Sr., DL/OL), Nick Serkerka (5-11, 200, Sr., LB) and Colton Cooper (5-10, 205, Sr., OL/LB).
The Wolverines lost a bevy of talent from last season's WPIAL finalist team. Pitt's football team has three of Woodland Hills' graduating seniors alone.
Only three starters on defense and four on offense return, and as a result, there might be Wolverines playing on both sides of the ball than there have been in past years under coach George Novak.
"This year we'll have to have a lot of guys like Michael Caprara and Mike Steals and [Jawan] Turner playing both ways," Novak said. "We'll see how they can handle that.
"A key factor for us is developing the inexperienced seniors who played JVs last year and the new sophomores and juniors . . . We've got our work cut out for us. It was a good first week of camp. It's going to be a growing process this year."
The returning starters who will be counted on are Caprara (6-0, 207, Sr., LB), Alex Beasley (6-0, 211, LB, Jr.) and Jason Peterson (5-11, 177, Sr., S) on defense and Steals (6-4, 240, OL, Sr.), Turner (6-0, 227, OL, Jr.), Pat Menifee (5-10, 150, Sr., QB) and Shakim Alonzo (6-5, 205, Sr., WR) on offense.
Steals and Caprara were all-conference selections last season, but Woodland Hills lost such honorees at eight positions to graduation.
First Published August 25, 2011 12:00 am