When the new Class AAAA football alignment was announced back in January, more than a few heads were being scratched when folks starting looking at "Section 2".
The conference was made up of the six teams from the old Great Southern Conference along with three teams from the Big East. Six schools from southern Allegheny County and northern Washington County joined by three teams right in the heart of eastern Allegheny County.
Anybody who has tried going from East to South or vice-versa, yet alone during rush-hour on a Friday, knows there is no easy commute. However while the travel aspect of this new conference will be a pain, the football aspect should be a thrill.
More than half of the nine teams in the new Southeastern Conference have played for a WPIAL Class AAAA championship in the twelve years of this century with titles being won in half of those years by Mount Lebanon in 2000, Upper St. Clair in 2006, Bethel Park in 2008 and by Woodland Hills in 2001, 2002 and 2009.
Here is a look at the new Southeastern Conference:
Baldwin is a team that has played the role of tweener on the football field for a while now. Always in contention to make the playoffs, but never able to have much success in years they do qualify for the postseason.
Now beginning his fourth year at Baldwin, head coach Jim Wehner continues his mission of turning the Highlanders into a perennial winner, much like he did with Avonworth and Yough.
The Highlanders return five starters on both offense and defense.
Baldwin should be effective in moving the ball with the return of top running back Dorian Brown, who rushed for 1,200 yards last season with an average of 6.1 yards per carry. Brown is joined in the offensive backfield by quarterback Doug Altavilla and fellow running back sophomore Stephon Harris. Also back is wide receiver D'Andre Andrews.
Up front, center Todd Zandier brings experience to a line that is young but with promise, including Sean Gerst and 6'8, 310-pound sophomore Sterling Jenkins.
On defense, Andrews and Jay Morrison return as defensive backs with Zack Nieman and Mainza Mweetwa up front on the d-line. Luke Smorey will anchor the linebackers, which Coach Wehner admits is the biggest area to fill for Baldwin with newcomers.
BETHEL PARK BLACK HAWKS:
The good news for Bethel Park in 2011 was that they finished in third place in the Great Southern Conference behind eventual district runner-up Upper St. Clair and 2010 conference champion Mount Lebanon. However the down side for the Black Hawks a year ago was an overall record under .500 at 4-6 which included an early exit from the playoffs. A 21-0 loss to Penn-Trafford in Round One of the WPIAL postseason marked the earliest conclusion to a season in many years for the black and orange.
Veteran coach Jeff Metheny begins his 19th season at BP with a lot of holes to fill from what was a senior oriented team a year ago.
One of those holes is at quarterback where two-year starter Anthony Cinello, who passed for over 1,100 yards a year ago, has graduated. Senior Cam Haye will get the shot to take over under center. A prime target is back at receiver in senior Avery Dibble. Junior Gary Gerst will try to lead a group of inexperienced backs to fuel the run game.
Bethel Park has had some very good linebackers in recent years in the likes of Adam Lazenga and Justin Pratt. Senior John Mascaro is ready to join those ranks as he begins his third year as a starting linebacker for the Hawks. Senior Mike Brucker and junior Mike Grimm return to anchor the lines.
The Black Hawks do return one of the top kickers in Class AAAA in junior Danny Christenson, who also will take over the punting duties from graduated Matthew Spegal.
CANON-McMILLAN BIG MACS:
Canon-McMillan has fallen on hard times on the gridiron. They have not made the WPIAL football postseason since 2008 and they are a combined 1-18 over the last two seasons.
Tim Sohyda begins his third year at the helm of the Big Macs as they begin the season looking to snap a 16-game losing streak, the longest current skid in WPIAL Class AAAA.
Because the team played a lot of underclassmen a year ago, Canon-McMillan does have some experience back, epsecially in the trenches. Only a sophomore, Alex Paulina caught the eyes of many as a 6-3, 250-pound FRESHMAN a year ago. Joining Paulina up front are seniors Torre Carr, Brian Cumpston, Angelo Broglia and senior tight end Alex Campbell, who has battled injuries as a starter the last couple of seasons.
While the Big Macs will look to replace some skilled players, junior running back Colin Chupinka should lead the ground attack behind the big boys up front.
MOUNT LEBANON BLUE DEVILS:
A new era is about to begin in more ways than one for Mount Lebanon football. The Blue Devils said goodbye to coach Chris Haering after 17-years after he left to become an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh. They also parted ways with 'long time' running back Luke Hagy. The 5-11, 190 pound running back finished his football career with 4,795 yards, third-best in Class AAAA history. Last year as a senior, he rushed for 1,907 yards on 287 attempts.
Mike Melnyk takes over as the new head coach. Melnyk, who compiled a 75-63 record in 13 seasons at Manheim Township, has plenty of holes to fill from a team that won the Great Southern Conference with an undefeated season two years ago and finished in second place before losing to Pittsburgh Central Catholic last season.
The Blue Devils return only two starters on offense and three on defense. On offense, Alex Bookser is a returning offensive tackle and Troy Apke returns at wide receiver. Defensively, Tyler Roth and Doran Graham started at cornerback last year and Will Gladden started at defensive tackle. Tim Briercheck was hurt last year but will a factor on both sides of the ball.
Among the new starters Coach Melnyk is excited about are Mark Buda, Matt McGraw, Mike Briercheck, and Dimitri Orfanopoulos.
PENN HILLS INDIANS:
Like Mount Lebanon, Penn Hills is another WPIAL Class AAAA perennial power that will have a new head coach in 2012. Much like former coach Ron Grahams predecessor Neil Gordon, the new coach is also the schools athletic director as John Peterman now runs the Indians sideline.
A year ago, the Indians finished in second place in the old Big East Conference behind Pittsburgh Central Catholic, however the team ended up 5-5 after losing 30-13 in the First Round of the WPIAL playoffs to Seneca Valley.
Penn Hills lost some key players from a year ago to graduation, including one of the top receivers in AAAA in Corey Jones, however they do have senior quarterback Darius Holloway back under center to bolster both the passing game and the run game.
Most of the ground attack will focus on a pair of returning backs in seniors Aaron Bailey and Toreek Hester.
PETERS TOWNSHIP INDIANS:
After missing out on the WPIAL football playoffs for several years, Peters Township finished in fourth place in the Great Southern Conference last year to make their second straight trip to the district postseason. The Indians saw their season end in Round One with a 42-14 loss to Pittsburgh Central Catholic.
The 4-6 season was the first for Rich Piccinini at Peters Township. He prepares for year two with five returning starters on offense and seven back on defense.
The Indians have a couple of signal callers battling for time under center in junior R.J. Pfeuffer and sophomore Corey Owen. Pfeuffer is the returning starter but the 6-1 Owen is one to watch. A couple of untested running backs will try to fill the shoes of Andrew Erenberg, who as a senior last year was all-conference, all-state and became the single season rushing leader and career touchdown leader at Peters Township. Junior Mike Erenberg and senior Eric Lewis return at both wide receiver and defensive back.
There is plenty of experience up front returning for Peters including seniors Greg Lippert, Cole Kochman and Matt Loether along with junior Dane Sehnert.
After back-to-back trips to the WPIAL football playoffs in 2009 and 2010, the first two years for Frank Sacco at Plum, the Mustangs slipped back into the land of gridiron struggles a year ago. Plum was winless in 6 Big East Conference games and finished 1-8 on the season.
The Mustangs have a great mix of underclassmen with experience that they hope will help lead them back into the postseason. Six starters return on offense and seven are back on defense.
On offense, Corey Deloach takes over full time under center for Chris Zdinak, who threw for over 3,000 yards in his quarterback career at Plum. Deloach will be joined in the offensive backfield by senior running back Jake DiGuilio and sophomore back Kyle Smeeker. With leading receiver C.J. Lutz gone, a pair of newcomers will try to fill the bill at receiver in senior Tevin Odom and sophomore Phil Mahr.
Plum has plenty of experience in the trenches on both sides of the ball led by 6'2, 225-pound lineman senior Matt Dombrowski. He is joined by juniors Chip Kress, Kyle Tomasits, Steven Turchick and sophomore Nathan Turchick.
Besides Deloach, Diguilio, Dombrowski, S.Turchick and Smeeker, the Mustangs return junior linebacker Jeff Ruffing and senior defensive back Nick DeLuca back on the defensive side of the ball.
UPPER ST. CLAIR PANTHERS:
One of the everlasting impressions of the 2011 WPIAL high school football season is the shot of veteran coach Jim Render with his arms in the air in disbelief after looking at the replay on the giant scoreboard of a controversial North Allegheny touchdown…hoping somebody, anybody would give him a red challenge flag to throw onto the field. There is no replay in high school football, but if there was, that touchdown would not have counted as the receiver clearly stepped out of bounds as he caught the ball. That doesn't mean North Allegheny would not have still won their second straight title, but it made for some great debate afterward.
USC came so close to capturing their 6th WPIAL football championship last November, with all five previous crowns coming under the guidance of the districts all time winningest coach, Jim Render. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the schools third title back in 1992 and the 15th anniversary of their fourth crown captured in 1997.
While the loss of Dakota Conwell is a big one, the return of last years postseason hero for the Panthers will help fill in that big hole. When Conwell went down with an injury late in the season that limited his playing time and effectiveness of running the wildcat offense, Pete Coughlin came in and led USC to a stunning upset of Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the Semifinals, then almost did it again a week later in the overtime loss to defending champion NA in the finals.
However there are a lot of holes to fill for Coach Render and his staff. Most of the starters from last year's memorable team have graduated.
One thing that will not change is that Upper St. Clair will spend some time hanging out on Park Place. Senior Austin Park follows in his two older brothers footsteps as key players in the Panthers success. While Alex was a quarterback who graduated in 2010 and Ian, a guard who graduated last year, Austin has anchored the offensive line at his center position.
WOODLAND HILLS WOLVERINES:
The song remains the same for veteran coach George Novak and the Woodland Hills Wolverines. Say goodbye to a great crop of seniors, including a handful that are going on to play Division I football in college…start over with a new bunch of talent…and keep winning year after year.
That recipe will have to repeat itself again for the Wolverines to have success in their new conference this fall. Gone are football standouts Pat Menifee, Shakim Alonzo and Mike Caprara. Woodland Hills finished in third place in the Big East a year ago behind Pittsburgh Central Catholic and Penn Hills before losing to Mount Lebanon in the First Round in a WPIAL postseason classic. Despite all of that, it was another winning season for Coach Novak at 6-4 overall.
Two key players returning for the Wolverines here in 2012 are senior linebacker Alex Beasley and senior guard Jawan Turner.
Running back Ronald Brown not only did well running from the lineof scrimmage a year ago for the Wolverines, but he also made a big splash with big plays on special teams, He and Harry Randall are two other Woody High players to watch.
The Wolverines won't have to wait long to get a feel for the new conference. A game that could potentially decide who finishes on top takes place in Week One when Woodland Hills travels to Upper St. Clair to battle the Panthers.
MSA Sports Predicted Order of Finish:
1. Upper St. Clair Panthers
2. Woodland Hills Wolverines
3. Penn Hills Indians
4. Mount Lebanon Blue Devils
5. Baldwin Highlanders
6. Peters Township Indians
7. Bethel Park Black Hawks
8. Plum Mustangs
9. Canon-McMillan Big Macs