The storylines all throughout the regular season last year in 6A revolved around how the Southeastern Conference lacked any heavyweight teams, while the Northern Seven boasted several title contenders. Unfortunately for fans of the Southeastern Conference, that’s exactly how things played out in the playoffs, too, as all four representatives were bounced in the first round.
Despite the shortcomings in that regard, the conference did feature a number of entertaining and tightly-contested games, and that should be the case once again in 2017. There is not nearly as much separation between the top and bottom of the conference, which means that the final playoff spots might not be determined until the final week of the season. Here’s a closer look at the teams that comprise the Southeastern Conference, and their outlook for the year.
ALTOONA MOUNTAIN LIONS
The Mountain Lions had to endure a lot of long bus rides home last season, as the team captured just one win in league play, finishing in a tie for last in the Southeastern Conference. Aside from the 40-37 triumph on the road against Peters Township, the Mountain Lions suffered lopsided defeats to Norwin, Mount Lebanon, Bethel Park and Hempfield Area. Altoona was competitive in a home tilt against Canon-McMillan, but ultimately fell 21-14.
The team will look to rebound in 2017, and will turn to a new signalcaller to guide the offense. With the graduation of Ryan Shope, who passed for nearly 1,400 yards, Braeden Burchfield could be the next in line. He struggled mightily in limited action last campaign, though, as six of his 30 pass attempts were intercepted. The team also lost a “good” receiver, as Kyle Good graduated after hauling in 56 passes last season. Cam Fasick will be back in the fold at receiver, however, after he caught 22 passes in his junior season. Altoona’s top rusher is also gone, but Tyler Petucci should fill the role of lead back, as he rushed for more than 200 yards and caught 16 passes in 2016.
Defensively, the Mountain Lions allowed more than 35 points per contest last campaign, the second worst mark in the entire classification. Altoona will look for returning standout lineman Gaige Hill and Jayvion Queen to anchor the unit.
BETHEL PARK BLACK HAWKS
The Black Hawks were tied for the top spot in the section last season, but their campaign in many ways mirrored that of the entire conference. Bethel Park had all five of its wins against section foes, but lost all four games against Northern Seven Conference opponents, including a playoff heartbreaker to Pine-Richland. Still, there is plenty to build on for Jeff Matheny’s team.
Running back John Doleno could be the focal point of the offense this year, even though he played behind Terron Murphy in 2016. Despite limited opportunities, Doleno averaged 7.4 yards per carry, and also hauled in 15 passes as a junior. At QB, however, Bethel Park will start from scratch, after Cole Rogers turned in a fantastic senior campaign last year. Rogers favorite target, Zachary Taylor, is also now gone, as is Jeremy Wodarek.
While the offense could take some time to adjust, the defense could once again be the Blackhawks calling card. In 2016, Bethel Park allowed the fewest points per game in the conference, at 20.0 The Black Hawks will feature some beasts in the trenches once again, as West Virginia commit and MSA Sports Kennywood Preseason Team member James Gmiter will anchor the units. The imposing Gmiter tips the scales at more than 300 pounds, and is ranked as one of the 30 best players in the state for the Class of 2018. He’ll be joined up front by Gavin Vargesko, who made his mark last year on the offensive line.
CANON-McMILLAN BIG MACS
Canon-Mac is a team that has been trending up the past few years, as evidenced by last season’s 5-5 overall mark. The record is somewhat deceiving, though, as the Big Macs won just two games in conference play, and also edged some lesser opponents in the cross-conference tilts. Nonetheless, coach Mike Evans guided the team to a fifth-place finish, which was a considerable improvement over previous campaigns.
The 2017 version of the Big Macs will be tasked with replacing a plethora of offense, however, as the top passer, rusher and top two receivers have all graduated. Graydon Wass, a rising senior, attempted just two passes behind prolific passer Jordan Castelli last year, so if he does assume the position, he’ll certainly lack varsity experience. Meanwhile, Anthony Sacco returns at running back, where he compiled just shy of 400 yards on the ground last year. If he can come close to replicating the success of his predecessor Bryan Milligan (1160 yards, 11 touchdowns), the Big Macs should be pleased. Perhaps the biggest void will be at receiver, where Rahmiere McKnight was a home-run threat and Doug Kotar was a solid second option. Andrew Engel, entering his junior year, will be the most accomplished returning receiver.
One of the biggest standouts back in the fold for the Big Macs is lineman Aaron Smith. The multi-year starter earned all-conference honors at tackle last season.
The Spartans appeared to be the team to beat in the early stages of last season, as they scored three straight victories to open their slate, including a thrilling upset against Mount Lebanon. Hempfield faltered down the stretch, though, as the squad lost six of its final eight games, including a deflating loss to Peters Township and a blowout playoff loss to North Allegheny.
This season should be a different story, though, as Hempfield returns several outstanding players at the skill positions, led by their QB, Justin Sliwoski. Passing for nearly 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns, and rushing for 500 yards and eight more scores, Sliwoski has all the physical tools needed at the position. Sliwoski was very good last year, but could establish himself as one of the best dual-threat passers in the district in his senior campaign. Leading wideout Nick DiAndreth, who had just shy of 700 yards receiver, will likely serve as the top target once again, while tight end Braden Brose, a physical specimen, could also become a major factor. The Spartans did lose running back Jordan Kempa, so Isaiah DiAndreth will likely assume the role of lead back in coach Rich Bowen’s offense.
The biggest questions won’t be on offense, but rather on defense, where the Spartans’ allowed more than 33 points per game in 2016. If that unit makes big strides, Hempfield could be atop of standings at season’s end.
MOUNT LEBANON BLUE DEVILS
Incredibly, Mount Lebanon was the only team in the Southeastern Conference that boasted an overall winning record last year. That accomplishment was overshadowed, though, by a first-round playoff exit to Seneca Valley. Prior to that defeat, the Blue Devils were on a roll, capturing wins in six of their last seven regular-season tilts, with the only loss coming in a tightly-contested matchup against North Allegheny.
The player who orchestrated the Blue Devils’ offense, QB James Stocker, boasted eye-popping stats in 2016. The signalcaller passed for 2,065 and 19 touchdowns, completing nearly 58 percent of his attempts. While Stocker will look to replicate last season’s success, he will have to do so with almost an entirely new collection of skill players. Running back David Harvey was also lost to graduation after compiling more than 1,400 yards on the ground, while the team’s top five receivers from 2016 have moved on, as well. Mount Lebanon’s offense was nearly 10 points better than any other team in the conference, so even with expected regression, it could still be one of the better units.
Michael Melynk’s squad should still be stout along the lines, too, anchored by Coleman Coco, an all-conference defensive lineman and a Colgate commit.
The Knights were a middle-of-the-pack team last year – good enough to earn a playoff bid in the fourth and final spot from the conference, but significantly overmatched in that contest against Central Catholic. Dave Brozeski’s squad returns some promising young talent in 2017, including one of the top players in the region among rising juniors.
Brock Dieter turned in a strong campaign at quarterback last year, passing for almost 1,500 yards and a sterling 18-2 touchdown to interception ratio. Jack Salopek also received meaningful snaps at QB as just a freshman, though, and he could prove to be too talented to be on the sidelines this season. Whoever is under center will need to identify a new top receiver, as Knights’ sensation Anthony DelleFemine moved on to the college level. The explosive playmaker totaled more than 800 yards receiving, while nobody else on the team eclipsed 300. Norwin also must replace its leading rusher and second-leading receiver, Aaron Carr. Tevin Washington is the top returning rusher, with just more than 200 yards on his resume from 2016.
The player who will likely garner most of the attention for Norwin is a defensive standout, though, rising junior Jayvon Thrift. Thrift, a safety, has already garnered offers from an array of colleges, including Pitt and West Virginia. Norwin figures to be one of the better defensive teams in the conference once again, after finishing second in overall points allowed last season.
PETERS TOWNSHIP INDIANS
Peters Township finished tied for last in the conference in 2016, but there were plenty of signs for optimism. The Indians scored massive upset wins against both Hempfield and Pine-Richland, and also lost by just three points on two separate occasions. Finding a way to replicate the success against quality teams, while also getting over the hump against lesser opponents will be the challenge for coach TJ Plack and his squad in 2017.
Peters Township returns its multi-year starting QB, Jake Cortes, who came up just shy of the 1,000-yard passing milestone last year. He notched 984 yards through the air, tossing eight touchdowns to just two interceptions. Cortes, a rising senior, is a big-bodied signal caller, standing 6-foot-5 and more than 220 pounds. Graduated running back TJ Kpan paced the team with 12 touchdowns, but Josh Casilli, who had eight scores of his own, is back.
MSA SPORTS PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH in SOUTHEASTERN:
1. Mount Lebanon Blue Devils
2. Hempfield Spartans
3. Bethel Park Black Hawks
4. Norwin Knights
5. Peters Township Indians
6. Canon-McMillan Big Macs
7. Altoona Mountain Lions