2023 WPIAL Class 2A football breakdown: Graduation leaves road to Acrisure wide open

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Sunday, August 20, 2023 | 8:01 AM


Last season, the WPIAL Class 2A playoffs were a star-studded affair.

Take a quick look at the four teams that reached the semifinals and the resumes of their quarterbacks.

• WPIAL champion Steel Valley had Cruce Brookins, who led the district with 34 rushing touchdowns and is now at Pitt.

• Runner-up Beaver Falls had Jaren Brickner, his school’s all-time leading passer with more than 5,000 yards to his credit.

Sto-Rox had Josh Jenkins, another 5,000-yard career passer who cracked the 2,000-yard mark last season alone.

Neshannock had Jonny Huff, who ran and passed for more than 1,000 yards.

They key word in that list, however — and it appeared in each entry — just might be “had.”

Past tense. All four have graduated and moved on to college football, and as a result, the path to Acrisure Stadium might be as wide open as the Parkway in the middle of the night.

“We’re all missing key components, that’s for sure,” Steel Valley coach Ray Braszo said. “It’s going to be hard to replace them for each one of us. They’re all great athletes who had great seasons. The four of us were good football teams that did a lot of good things offensively and defensively. I don’t know who has the most experienced players coming back, but everything’s going to be open, I’m sure.”

With no team staking a strong claim to the role of favorite, one of two things could happen this season: Either one of the classification’s blue bloods reloads quicker than the others and returns to the top or a team that hasn’t experienced recent playoff success steps into the void.

There’s no shortage of candidates for the latter category.

Led by sophomore running back David Davis, one of the WPIAL’s most dangerous home run hitters, Imani Christian’s football team could follow the path to the top its basketball team has already taken.

Keystone Oaks has a handful of returning all-conference players, including Syracuse recruit Clinton Robinson.

McGuffey has the talent and experience to contend. The Highlanders are one of the few teams in the classification with a player with quarterback experience on the roster, but playmaker Logan Carlisle, who transferred back from Washington, is expected to be a receiver when he returns from injury.

Mohawk has a wide receiver to watch in sophomore Bobby Fadden and could be a darkhorse in the Midwestern Athletic Conference.

“Every year’s a new year,” Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio said. “There are going to be different players that step up and different players that mature and come out with breakout seasons. That’s one of the exciting things about high school football.”

While opportunity abounds for upstarts, it would be foolish to think last year’s top teams will hand over their spots easily.

Defending champion Steel Valley especially, with Donald and Da’Ron Barksdale moving into marquee roles in the backfield, will be difficult to dethrone.

Beaver Falls has more skill players itching to move into the spotlight than coach Nick Nardone can count.

The kind of blocking Neshannock can expect to get from an experienced line will give newcomers in skill positions plenty of time to work out the kinks.

Washington lost Carlisle to transfer and Davoun Fuse to Rutgers, but the Little Prexies return a long list of impact players.

And don’t forget Serra Catholic, the 2021 WPIAL champs. The Eagles fell in the first-round of the playoffs to Washington, but their quarterback, Quadir Stribling, might have a better mix of talent and experience than any other signal caller in the class.

“It’ll definitely be the team at the end of the season that has their quarterback kind of step up and take on that role and fill the shoes of the guys who graduated last year,” Nardone said.

PRESEASON RANKINGS

1. Steel Valley (12-1)

Speaking frankly, coach Ray Braszo admitted he expects a dropoff after everything came together en route to a WPIAL title last season, but by November, that dropoff could be long forgotten. The backfield is now led by the brilliant Barksdale brothers. Da’Ron is a Division I athlete at quarterback and Donald put on a show as a ball carrier and defender in the WPIAL championship game last season.

2. Serra Catholic (7-4)

3. Beaver Falls (11-2)

4. Neshannock (11-2)

5. Imani Christian (4-6)

THE STARS

Da’Ron Barksdale

Steel Valley, So., RB/DB

A handful of Division I schools, including Pitt and West Virginia, have offered scholarships to Barksdale for his work on defense, where his sudden speed and football instincts make him stand out in any crowd. It’ll be fun to watch him as a running quarterback as well.

David Davis

Imani Christian, So., RB/DB

With a dizzying combination of speed, vision, acceleration and ability to break tackles even though he’s not a bruiser at 6-foot, 174 pounds, Davis has been collecting Division I offers, including Pitt and Penn State.

Ruben Gordon

Washington, Sr., WR/DB

A former WPIAL high jump and long jump champion and runner-up in the 100 meters, there aren’t many better athletes under Friday night lights. He’s a scary deep threat and the best part of his game might be his return ability.

Amare Harper

Sto-Rox, Sr. OL/DL

The Vikings’ big crop of skill players graduated, but Harper returns. He is a particularly disruptive force on defense, where he invades backfields on a regular basis. On offense, he locks on to defenders and finishes them.

Clinton Robinson

Keystone Oaks, Sr., WR/DB

Opponents will have to keep an eye on Robinson on offense, where he is a game-breaking receiver, but defense could be his calling card. He has next-level closing speed and when he arrives at the ball carrier, he’s not there just to say hi.

DON’T MISS

8.26: Imani Christian vs. Steelton-Highspire

An early season chance for the Saints to prove their mettle at the York Rose Bowl showcase

9.22: Neshannock at Beaver Falls

The Lancers take their shot at knocking the Tigers off the top of the MAC mountain

9.22: Sto-Rox at Keystone Oaks

Plenty of athletes on both sides, and a chance for the Golden Eagles to make a statement

10.27: Serra Catholic at Steel Valley

The last two WPIAL Class 2A champions square off in the biggest stop on the road to Acrisure

10.27: Washington at McGuffey

One of the WPIAL’s great rivalries that always has an impact on the Century Conference standings

Jonathan Bombulie is the TribLive assistant sports editor. A Greensburg native, he was a hockey reporter for two decades, covering the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for 17 seasons before joining the Trib in 2015 and covering the Penguins for four seasons, including Stanley Cup championships in 2016-17. He can be reached at jbombulie@triblive.com.

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