Last season, Big East Conference teams were involved in some of the most dramatic and wild finishes in the entire WPIAL, including multiple involving the McKeesport Tigers. In the regular season, Armstrong edged McKeesport in an overtime classic. Meanwhile in the 5A semifinals, it was the Tigers who pulled off a Hail Mary to win at the buzzer. Just a week later, though, McKeesport was on the wrong end of an unforgettable finish, losing the title game in overtime.
In 2017, the Tigers will be motivated to finish what they started last year, but several teams, including Gateway, Penn-Trafford and Franklin Regional, will look to take the reins. Meanwhile, after struggling mightily in 2016, Plum, Latrobe and Connellsville will aim for improvement for the campaign. Also, Kiski Area and Armstrong could represent wild cards, as the Cavs followed a great start with a disappointing finish, while the River Hawks won the section outright but lost one of the most accomplished players in WPIAL history.
Here’s a look ahead at the 5A Big East Conference:
ARMSTRONG RIVER HAWKS
The orange and blue clad team was making headlines seemingly every week last season, but it wasn’t just because of their first-place finish in the conference. Running back Zane Dudek was busy rewriting the WPIAL record books, as he set single game and season marks for rushing yards. All told, the Zane Train accounted for 2,955 yards on the ground and 42 scores, but unfortunately, he saw his team’s season come to an end from the sidelines, as he was injured early in their first-round playoff loss to Gateway.
Offensively, nobody was more pivotal to a team’s success than Dudek. Behind him, no other rusher accounted for more than 30 yards. With Dudek continuing his career now in the Ivy League, and QB Michael Lhote and top receiver Shawn Giddings also lost to graduation, the River Hawks will basically be starting from scratch at the skill positions. Dawson Porter should assume the QB role, after he missed last campaign due to injury.
Coach Frank Fabian will lean on rising senior Nate Baillie to dominate at the line of scrimmage, as he was an all-conference offensive lineman last year, and should be a key component of the defense, too. While Armstrong will almost certainly not match its class-leading 41.2 points per game in 2016, the River Hawks will have to maintain or improve their defense, which allowed just over 20 points per contest.
Last season was one to forget for the Falcons, as they struggled to a winless conference slate, and just one win overall. After besting rival Uniontown in the opening contest, Connellsville was on the wrong end of lopsided decisions nearly every week. The only game that was competitive was a 28-21 setback to Baldwin. The Falcons hope that first-year coach Marko Thomas will provide a spark to the struggling program.
The good news for the Falcons is that their most impressive offensive player, running back Noah Karpiak, is now entering his junior campaign. Karpiak totaled nearly 700 yards on the ground, and also paced the squad with five scores last year. QB Dylan Bubarth is back too, after splitting time with the graduated Dylan Harshman. Bubarth will need to make big strides, though, as he netted just 88 yards through the air. Because of the sluggish passing game, no receivers stood out statistically last year, but Luke White could be an enticing target in 2017. Furthermore, offensive lineman Brock Basinger has received recognition for his play.
On the other side of the ball, Connellsville ranked last by a wide margin in points allowed, at 45 per game. White, who doubles as a standout linebacker, could be the biggest component in improving the Falcons’ defense in 2017.
FRANKLIN REGIONAL PANTHERS
To say that Greg Botta has built a consistently successful program at Franklin Regional would be an understatement, as the Panthers are always in the playoffs, and often in the discussion for title contenders. Last year was more of the same, as the team sputtered to consecutive losses out of the gate, but then won seven straight entering the playoffs. The Panthers were then dispatched on the road against Woodland Hills, however, 17-3.
With QB and top rusher Simon Behr graduated, Adam Rudzinski, a rising junior, appears to be next in line at quarterback. Rudzinski attempted just a handful of passes last year, but already has good size. Three of the top four receivers graduated, too, with the exception being Nathan Leopold. Stephen Johns could see a big increase in his yardage in 2017, after he compiled just shy of 300 yards on the ground last year. Tyrese Coleman, too, will be back, giving Botta plenty of options to run the football.
Defensively, the Panthers boast one of the best linebackers in the area in Bryce Lauer. Lauer, who also plays on the offensive line at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, compiled prolific tackle numbers last year. His most impressive performance came against McKeesport, a game in which he made 23 stops. Meanwhile, Nate Leopold will be among the strong players in the secondary for FR.
If not for a miraculous play at the buzzer by McKeesport, it would’ve been the Gators who played for a championship at Heinz Field last season. As a result of the semifinals heartbreaker, Gateway finished 7-5, but all of the losses came against playoff squads. The success of the Gators last year might’ve been a slight surprise, but the team will likely face increased expectations in 2017 as Don Holl begins his second year guiding the program.
Renowned QB Brady Walker will be among the best at his position in the district, after passing for more than 2,800 yards and 28 scores, and rushing for nearly 500 yards last campaign. Although top target Jaquan Brisker is gone, rising junior Courtney Jackson could develop into an elite pass catcher, as he had more than 500 yards last season. Still, Gateway will need other players to step up in order to replace the production of four of their top five receivers. Gateway will be inexperienced at running back, too, while the Gators also graduated one of the best kickers in the WPIAL in Jordan Washington.
Gateway proved solid defensively last season, allowing less than 20 points on average, and Jackson will anchor the Gators secondary this year.
KISKI AREA CAVALIERS
One month into conference play last season, it appeared as though the Cavaliers were destined for a special season. The Cavs dropped their final five affairs to finish 4-6, though, missing the postseason. As a result of the rough finish, Kiski Area moved on from quotable coach Dave Heavner, and brought in Sam Albert, previously with nearby Highlands.
Offensively, there’s reason for optimism, as 1,000-yard rusher Ross Greece returns for the Cavs. Greece, who scored 15 touchdowns, also threw some passes from the wildcat formation in 2016. That might not be needed this season, though, if Bryson Venanzio develops. As a freshman, Venanzio struggled with his completion percentage, and tossed more interceptions than touchdowns. Still, he threw for nearly 600 yards, an impressive mark for a 9th grader. Drew DiNunzio-Biss also returns to the backfield, where he’ll likely spell Greece.
For years, the Wildcats have struggled on the gridiron, and that trend continued in 2016. The team won just won game, although the 63-6 triumph in the season finale likely created some positive vibes for the offseason. Greater Latrobe also lost a pair of one-score games, to Derry Area and Chartiers Valley, so notable improvement this year isn’t out of the question.
To have success, though, the Wildcats will need to fill the massive void left by Austin Butler. Butler, recognized as the MSA Sports Boys Co-Athlete of the Year, threw for more than 1,700 yards and ran for nearly 400. The biggest beneficiary of Butler’s performance was Jason Armstrong, who accumulated approximately 700 yards receiving. After throwing three touchdowns last year, Armstrong is expected to transition to signalcaller full time this year, which could mean more opportunities for returning receiver Zakharee Williams. Preston Boerio should receive the bulk of the carries after finishing second to Butler in rushing last year, and he also was a factor in the passing game.
Jason Marucco’s squad will have major question marks on defense, though, where the Wildcats allowed almost 40 points per contest, second worst in 5A.
The Tigers could not have been any closer to claiming gold last year, as they were literally one play away from winning the WPIAL 5A Championship. A penalty on the Tigers on a missed field goal by West Allegheny with time expired extended the game, though, and ultimately McKeesport fell in an overtime classic, 38-37. The sour ending did not negate the success McKeesport had, though, as they finished 9-3 in their first season under coach Matt Miller.
Despite a new coach, the Tigers stayed true to their proven formula on offense: the flexbone. However, McKeesport did mix in a bit more passing last year, with the now departed Jayvaun Shears accounting for almost 500 yards through the air. Shears was more vital to the rushing game, as he compiled 1,113 yards and 25 scores. The next three leading rushers, Layton Jordan, Carlinos Acie and JJ Harper, all return, though. Moreover, Jordan and Acie led the squad in receiving yards, so the Tigers won’t be short on playmakers.
Defensively, Harper, who has received Division I offers, and Acie comprise a suffocating secondary, while Alex Meadows should be stout up front. Still, the Tigers were just fifth best in the Big East Conference in points allowed last year, so that could be where they eye improvement. If that happens, McKeesport could be right back at Heinz Field in November.
After giving Central Catholic a real challenge in the 2015 title game, the Warriors shockingly were left outside of the postseason last year. After winning its first five games, Penn-Trafford dropped three straight, to Gateway, Franklin Regional and Armstrong. Despite rebounding with a pair of wins, the Warriors fell just short, losing a tiebreaker for fourth place.
Jon Ruane’s team might not be down for long, though, as they return some skilled playmakers. A Laffoon has been under center for many years now at PT, and that will continue in 2017, as Cam Laffoon enters his senior campaign. As a first-year starter in 2016, he passed for almost 1,700 and 17 scores and picked up more than 400 yards with his legs, too. Moreover, his top target, Cam Suman, will look to build on last year’s 483-yard output. Second-leading receiver Anthony Cervone is back too, as is leading rusher Jon Gay. Kicker Nick Tarabrella, honored on the MSA Sports Kennywood Preseason Team, will add another weapon to the Warriors’ attack, as he booted eight field goals last year and led the team in scoring by a wide margin.
Penn-Trafford should be good in the trenches, too, as they return a pair of accomplished players. Akron commit Logan Hawkins and Will Mayr both made all-conference honors last year, and should anchor the units once again.
After consecutive bounce-back seasons for the Mustangs, Plum failed to gain traction in 2016, with a record of just 2-7 overall. Despite handily defeating the two teams that finished below them in the standings, the Mustangs struggled to stay within striking distance in their setbacks.
Quarterback Anthony Little took his lumps as a freshman after taking over for Corey Thomas, but his experience at QB could pay dividends this year. Thomas, meanwhile, appears to be established at running back, and should lead the team in yards this season after the graduation of 2016 leading rusher Kevin Brown. Brown also paced the team in receptions, but elite 2019 prospect Rahmon Hart was tops in receiving yardage. Hart’s transfer leaves the Mustangs with a void at receiver, with nobody on the roster with more than two receptions last season.
Coach Matt Morgan received much-deserved praise for his efforts in transforming the Mustangs from a winless team into a playoff squad just a few years ago, and he’ll try to replicate that turnaround again in 2017.
MSA SPORTS PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH in BIG EAST:
1. McKeesport Tigers
2. Gateway Gators
3. Penn-Trafford Warriors
4. Franklin Regional Panthers
5. Kiski Area Cavaliers
6. Armstrong River Hawks
7. Plum Mustangs
8. Latrobe Wildcats
9. Connellsville Falcons