Of the seven teams in the Northern Seven Conference, at least one of them has been in a WPIAL championship game nine times in the past seven years. Two times over the past three years the championship in the WPIAL’s largest class has matched two teams from the Northern Seven.
Come late November this year, it is likely two teams from the Northern Seven will be in the title game again.
There are only two conferences in WPIAL 6A and the Northern Seven is unquestionably the strongest, at least in terms of the top teams. Many are pegging Pine-Richland as the top team in all of the WPIAL. The Northern Seven also has Central Catholic, which has played in four consecutive title games. Then there is always-strong North Allegheny and you can’t overlook Seneca Valley, which played in the title game last year.
Here is a look at the teams in the Northern Seven this year:
BUTLER GOLDEN TORNADO
It has been 20 years since Butler has enjoyed a winning season. It won’t be easy for the Golden Tornado to finish with a winning record this year, especially playing in a conference against the aforementioned top teams. But maybe Butler can battle for the fourth and final playoff spot this season.
Butler needs to improve on both sides of the ball after scoring only 15 points a game last season and giving up 33. Six starters return on offense and seven on defense, and the strength of this team might be on the lines. Senior Jake Kradel (6-4, 280) is one of the best linemen in the WPIAL. He already has made a verbal commitment to Pitt, turning down scholarship offers from a number of other schools. Kradel plays offense and defense. His future at Pitt might be on offense, but he was first-team all-conference on defense a year ago.
Defenses might feel like they’re seeing double this year. But it’s just the Michalek twins. Luke rushed for 435 yards on 100 attempts last season and returns. His twin, John, returns at receiver. Butler is hoping Brandon Fleeger has a solid year at quarterback. He was the starter last season, but sustained a season-ending injury early.
PITTSBURGH CENTRAL CATHOLIC VIKINGS
The Vikings won’t be as strong as the past few years as only five starters return on both offense and defense. But don’t be surprised if this team ends up challenging for a WPIAL title again.
Troy Fisher is a 6-4 quarterback who returns for his third year as a starter. He already has committed to Lafayette. David Green has Division I scholarship offers and is one of the WPIAL’s top defensive linemen. But he also can be a bruising fullback.
Other returning starters are WR-DB Corey Thomas, WR-DB Cam Laconi, DE Brian Dallas and RB-WR-DB Khalil Weathers.
Central Catholic has a tough season opener at Erie Cathedral Prep, the defending Class 4A state champ.
NORTH ALLEGHENY TIGERS
The Tigers lost a number of top-notch players last year. But they never seem to rebuild at North Allegheny. They simply reload. That might be the case again this year.
Some talented players return from last year and others are primed to take their turn making a difference for coach Art Walker.
One of the most notable players on the Tigers is lineman Derek Devine, who already has made a verbal commitment to the University of Virginia. North Allegheny has a few other linemen returning on both sides of the ball. Turner White could have a big year at running back. He showed promise last year with 382 yards on 49 carries.
Luke Trueman is ready to take over at quarterback. The defense will be led by linebacker Ryan Langdon.
PENN HILLS INDIANS
The Indians have a new coach in Jon LeDonne. He won only three games in three years at Shaler, but Penn Hills thought enough of him to take over for John Peterman, who resigned as coach and AD to become only AD at Kiski Area.
It will be interesting to see what style offense LeDonne employs. The Indians threw the ball a ton last year and Cam Tarrant threw for more than 2,000 yards. Tarrant has graduated and junior Hollis Mathis takes over. Look for Mathis to look often at senior Julian Major, a receiver who has committed to Michigan State.
Tim Smith and Terry “Tank” Smith return after showing some promise last year at running back. Offense wasn’t a problem last year as the Indians averaged 33 points a game, althought they had trouble against the top teams. The defense gave up 32 points a game.
The season starts for Pine-Richland just like last year – with a game live on ESPN. This year, the Rams play at home against Wayne (Ohio) on Sunday, Aug. 25.
Pine-Richland features superb senior quarterback Phil Jurkovec, a Notre Dame recruit who is ranked among the best quarterbacks in the country by scouting services. Jurkovec missed about half of last season after sustaining a thumb injury against Central Catholic, which required season-ending surgery. But Jurkovec is back and 100 percent. He has almost 6,000 yards offense (rushing and passing) in a season and a half.
Jurkovec brings plenty of attention to Pine-Richland, but he is not the only reason so much is expected of this team. Nine starters return on both offense and defense. On top of that, Kenny White transferred from West Allegheny after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season.
Raymond Falcone was Jurkovec’s favorite target last year and he returns. Falcone was one of the WPIAL leaders in receptions last year. Jordan Crawford made some big plays at running back last year, but he might play more at slot with White on the scene.
Pine-Richland should be strong on the lines, led by two top juniors in Michael Katic (6-3, 280) and Andrew Kristofic (6-6, 250). Pitt is one of the few Division I schools that already have offered Kristofic. Tyler King is a standout junior linebacker who started as a sophomore.
Other returning starters are receiver Cam Ballay, center Mike Dorundo, defensive tackle Dave Hodgin, linebacker Anthony Cerminara, linebacker Tommy Camino and defensive back Luke Meckler. Vitto Orsini is a top kicker.
SENECA VALLEY RAIDERS
The Raiders have a new coach. Well, he’s sort of an old coach for the Raiders.
Ron Butschle takes over for Dave Vestal, who resigned after taking the Raiders to the WPIAL final last year. This is Butschle’s second term as Seneca Valley’s coach.
This year’s team doesn’t appear to be on the level of Central Catholic or Pine-Richland. But then again, who expected the Raiders to be in the final last year?
Gabe Miller was a first-team all-conference linebacker last year. He also plays running back. Noah Mancuso could make some waves at running back also.
Other returning starters are WR-DB Jake Bunofsky, WR-DB Parker Smith, WR-DB Luke Smith and linemen Evan Schillero, Drew Robertson and Jake Stevvings.
Gabe Lawson saw some time at QB and is ready to take over for talented Jack Cook, who graduated.
The Titans have struggled mightily in recent years, and now they have a new coach in Jim Ryan. He took over in June when LeDonne left to take the Penn Hills job. Ryan is a former offensive line coach for the Titans.
If the Titans are to improve, they’ll need to make big steps on both offense and defense. They scored only seven points a game last season while allowing 43. But if experience means anything, maybe Shaler will improve some. A number of starters return from last year. On offense, Jake Pollak might lead the running game. Hunter Zukowski will be counted on at quarterback. Mike Battaglia is a top receiver-defensive back. Jeffrey Bonnette will be a leader on the lines.
Among other returning starters are FB-LB Parker Kilgore, TE-LB Jake Miller, DB Darin Mizgorski, who also can play quarterback, WR-DB Adam Wenger and WR-DB Davis Deasy.
MSA SPORTS PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH in NORTHERN SEVEN:
1. Pine-Richland Rams
2. Pittsburgh Central Catholic Vikings
3. North Allegheny Tigers
4. Seneca Valley Raiders
5. Penn Hills Indians
6. Butler Golden Tornado
7. Shaler Titans