2023 WPIAL Class 5A football breakdown: Reaching postseason no easy task

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Sunday, August 20, 2023 | 8:01 AM


In WPIAL Class 5A, there’s no room for error.

Penn Hills knows that as well as anyone after ending last season disappointed. The Indians tied for second in the Northeast Conference, yet missed the playoffs on tiebreakers. They had even celebrated a regular-season win over eventual state champion Pine-Richland, but that wasn’t enough to reach the postseason.

They missed by the slimmest of margins.

“A couple of things didn’t bounce our way,” said Penn Hills coach Charles Morris, thinking back to conference games they lost by one and four points. “I tell the kids, ‘Control what you can control.’”

There are 18 teams in Class 5A and only eight qualify for the playoffs. That equals 44%, which is the lowest qualifying percentage for any of the six WPIAL classifications. The five other classes range from 55% in Class A to 80% in 6A.

Making the task more daunting is that 5A usually has an abundance of good teams.

“In terms of quality of competition, I’d say it’s the toughest classification for sure,” said Pine-Richland coach Jon LeDonne, whose Rams won the WPIAL and PIAA titles last season.

Because of that depth, no team has won consecutive WPIAL 5A titles since the classification was created in 2016. Pine-Richland will try to become the first this fall, but graduated quarterback Ryan Palmieri, the catalyst for last year’s championship run.

“We’ve got some pieces back, but there’s a question mark at the quarterback position,” LeDonne said.

Gateway, which won WPIAL 5A titles in 2019 and ’17, could contend for another behind a senior quarterback with more than 6,000 career passing yards. WPIAL runner-up Upper St. Clair graduated 15 of 22 starters since last year, but the Panthers’ locker room isn’t empty.

Bethel Park and Woodland Hills each reached the semifinals last season and will try to make another playoff run under new head coaches. Franklin Regional, Penn-Trafford and North Hills also earned playoff berths in 2022.

To fill the eight-team playoff bracket, the WPIAL takes the first- and second-place teams from each of the three conferences, along with two wild cards.

The state playoff schedule is ultimately to blame for the fewer qualifiers. The WPIAL 5A champion joins the state playoffs a week earlier than the winners of 4A, 3A, 2A and A, so the 5A tournament can’t be longer than three rounds.

“That type of stuff is out of our control,” Morris said. “We don’t make those kinds of decisions. We’ve just got to go out there, play the games and give them the respect they deserve, because there are a lot of quality teams in 5A.”

Each team plays five conference games.

Penn Hills went 3-2 a year ago, and those two conference losses were too many. But with Pitt recruit Julian Dugger at quarterback and seven starters returning on defense, don’t be surprised if the Indians find their way into the playoffs.

“We fell short last year,” Morris said, “but the expectations at Penn Hills are always to make the playoffs.”

Could a team that missed the playoffs one year win the title the next? It might be possible in 5A, especially since the Indians turned the page quickly, within days of their season-ending loss.

“I was getting calls and messages from kids asking ‘Coach, can we get back in the weight room? Can you give us some workouts? Can we start running and getting back to it?’” Morris said. “They were really excited and anxious to get back to work because of the sour taste in their mouths.”

PRESEASON RANKINGS

1. Gateway (7-4)

Gateway has one more season with quarterback Brad Birch, a senior with more than 6,000 career passing yards. The Gators are envisioning a big-play offense potent enough to win their first WPIAL title since 2019. However, recent playoff results weren’t what they’d hoped for, with no wins in the past two postseasons.

2. Penn Hills (5-5)

3. Pine-Richland (12-4)

4. Woodland Hills (6-6)

5. Bethel Park (10-2)

*Records from 2022

THE STARS

Brad Birch

Gateway, Sr., QB

Birch is a fourth-year starter who already has more than 6,000 career passing yards and 74 touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound passer has topped 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons. He won a WPIAL Class A title as a freshman at Jeannette.

Ryan Cory

Pine-Richland, Sr., OL/DL

The 6-4, 290-pound Wisconsin recruit helped the Rams rush for more than 200 yards per game last season while winning WPIAL and PIAA titles. His college offers included Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia, Miami (Fla.), Stanford and others.

Julian Dugger

Penn Hills, Sr., QB

The Pitt recruit passed for more than 2,400 yards combined over the past two seasons. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound passer threw for 10 touchdowns a year ago, while also rushing for almost 500 yards. He also had FBS offers from Toledo and UMass.

Jackson Pons

Norwin, Sr., WR/DB

The Miami (Ohio) commit will try to lead Norwin to a bounce-back season after finishing 1-9 a year ago. Pons caught 22 passes and made four interceptions as a junior. The safety recruit had more than a dozen Division I offers.

Zach Tomosovich

Penn-Trafford, Sr., OL/DL

The Army recruit is the latest big lineman to come through the Penn-Trafford program. The 6-5, 305-pounder has started at tackle since his sophomore year, when the Warriors won the state title. He had nearly a dozen college offers.

DON’T MISS

9.1: Gateway at Woodland Hills

Good nonconference test in Week 1 for two teams with playoff expectations.

9.8: Penn Hills at Pine-Richland

Big game in the Northeast; Penn Hills won this matchup at home last year.

10.6: Upper St. Clair at Bethel Park

These Allegheny Six rivals met in a 2022 WPIAL semifinal, won by USC.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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