2023 WPIAL Class 6A football breakdown: New coaches add intrigue to competitive field

By:
Sunday, August 20, 2023 | 8:01 AM


Nearly half of the teams in the WPIAL’s largest classification have new football coaches in 2023.

Now before launching an investigation into the coaching landscape in the district, keep in mind, there are only five teams in Class 6A.

The two coaches who stepped away are quite significant.

Terry Totten retired as head coach at Central Catholic after 18 seasons.

The 65-year old Totten built an impressive resume, winning 188 games, six WPIAL championships and two PIAA state titles in his tenure.

Bob Palko stepped down after four years as Mt. Lebanon head coach after last season. He stepped away for personal reasons, and then later took a job in the Penn State University athletic department.

Palko’s numbers include 249 wins (tied for 11th in WPIAL history), and he’s tied with Bill Cherpak of Thomas Jefferson for most WPIAL championships with nine and two PIAA state crowns in his 28 years at West Allegheny and Mt. Lebanon.

The coaches taking over for the two legends are treading on new soil. One is a first-time head coach while the other is new to the 6A universe.

Ryan Lehmeier is no stranger to the highest classification as he takes over for Totten at Central Catholic. He was the quarterback at North Hills in the mid-2000s, then spent the last eight years as an assistant coach at Pine-Richland and Seneca Valley.

“Our athletic director, Rick Capretta, has been really supportive and such a great resource for me, along with the other members of the administration at Central Catholic,” Lehmeier said.

Mike Collodi has a proven track record as head coach at Class 3A Elizabeth Forward and now takes over at Mt. Lebanon. He went 56-24 in eight seasons as Warriors head coach and reached the playoffs in each of the past six years. Elizabeth Forward went 8-1 and reached the WPIAL 3A finals in 2020, falling to Central Valley.

“I was at EF nearly a decade and got to know every coach in the conference well and had an idea of what they liked to do,” Collodi said. “It will be fun to compete against new teams and new coaches.”

So what do the three veteran coaches in 6A think about the new kids on the block?

“There’s always an adjustment when teams have new coaches,” North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. “New systems are a challenge, but I am fortunate to have a great and knowledgeable staff that is always up for challenges.”

“I don’t know either of them very well,” Canon-McMillan coach Mike Evans said. “They both come from successful programs, so I’m sure they are taking care of business.”

“Ryan Lehmeier has coached at this level for two years, and before that, at the highest level in 5A,” Seneca Valley coach Ron Butschle said. “I don’t know much about Mike Collodi, but he is their new head coach for a reason.”

The small size of the classification makes every game huge. In 2022, fans may have witnessed the most competitive regular season in the seven years of 6A football, with plenty of close games and little separation in the standings.

North Allegheny finished with a perfect regular season, while the other four teams finished within one game of each other.

The Tigers went on to capture their first WPIAL championship in 10 years, beating Central Catholic in the finals, 35-21.

The two finalists from a year ago are the two favorites heading into the 2023 season.

“There’s definitely pressure holding the title,” North Allegheny senior Tyree Alualu said. “My guys and I are more than ready to take on whoever wants to take it from us.”

PRESEASON RANKINGS

1. North Allegheny (11-2)

The Tigers return 12 starters from a team that won the WPIAL 6A championship and lost to State College in the PIAA quarterfinals a year ago. The title was the first 6A crown and the program’s first championship since 2012. Even though there were only five teams, 2022 was one of the most competitive seasons since the expansion to six classifications statewide in 2016. This season could come down to the two teams that played for gold last fall, as Central Catholic also returns plenty of starters from its runner-up campaign.

2. Central Catholic (7-5)

3. Canon-McMillan (5-6)

4. Mt. Lebanon (5-6)

5. Seneca Valley (6-4)

*Records from 2022

THE STARS

TYREE ALUALU

North Allegheny, Sr., RB/LB

Alualu is following in the footsteps of his father, former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Tyson Alualu, in becoming a dominant performer on defense. He helped North Allegheny win its first WPIAL championship in a decade last fall. The 6-0, 210-pound linebacker had 61 tackles, including 11 for a loss, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. On offense, he rushed for 264 yards and four touchdowns.

KHIRYN BOYD

North Allegheny, Sr., WR/DB

Whether on offense or defense, the football seems to gravitate toward Boyd. The 5-10, 160-pound wide receiver and defensive back led the Tigers with six interceptions on defense and caught 42 passes for 742 yards while rushing for 291 yards on 22 carries with a total of 12 touchdowns, including a pair of long scoring TDs in the 6A title game win. Boyd has scholarship offers from Duquesne, Robert Morris, Howard and Bowling Green.

ANTHONY SPECA

Central Catholic, Sr., ILB

Speca has been a dominant force on defense at Central Catholic in each of his first three seasons. The 6-3, 220-pound senior linebacker was rated the ninth-best inside linebacker from the Class of 2024 by Rivals. Speca missed some time last year due to injuries. He had more than 20 Division I offers but committed to Penn State in January.

COLE SULLIVAN

Central Catholic, Sr., TE/OLB

Offensive linemen and broken bones have yet to slow down Sullivan, one of the top linebackers in the district. Playing with a cast on his hand for part of 2022, the 6-3, 200-pound Sullivan was still able to register more than 100 tackles as a junior. He is expected to play a bigger role on offense this fall at the tight end position. After narrowing his choices to five, Sullivan committed to Michigan.

CONNOR YOUNG

Mt. Lebanon, Sr., OT/DE

With a new coach and several new players, Young hopes to be the anchor in the Mt. Lebanon trenches and a leader both in and out of the huddle. The 6-3, 260-pound offensive tackle and defensive lineman will likely play on the defensive side of the ball at the next level. After accumulating more than 20 scholarship offers, Young plans to attend the Naval Academy next year.

DON’T MISS

9.1: Canon-McMillan at North Allegheny

Right off the bat, two teams with 6A title hopes collide in a rematch of a WPIAL semifinal from 2022. That playoff game featured two top junior quarterbacks in Logan Kushner of NA and Michael Evans of Canon-Mac, yet only seven points were scored as the Tigers blanked the Big Macs. After two more losses last season, Canon-McMillan is now 0-8 against North Allegheny since the 2016 expansion to six classifications.

9.22: Mt. Lebanon at Seneca Valley

With only five teams and four conference games for each team, every Class 6A game, no matter when it is played, is a big one. This Week 4 matchup in Harmony could end up deciding a district playoff berth. Last season, the Raiders beat the Blue Devils, 24-6, for what turned out to be SV’s only conference victory. Both teams enter 2023 young and inexperienced.

9.22: Central Catholic at North Allegheny

The rematch of the 2022 WPIAL 6A championship game could be the game that decides the 2023 regular season title. Both teams are loaded with returning starters and players who have drawn plenty of Division I interest. It will also feature two of the top quarterbacks in the district in Payton Wehner of Central Catholic and Logan Kushner of North Allegheny.

10.20: Seneca Valley vs. Central Catholic at Gateway

It’s the mentor against the student in this 6A game in Monroeville. Ron Butschle is in his seventh season in his second tenure as Seneca Valley head coach. Ryan Lehmeier is in his first season as a head coach, taking over for Terry Totten at Central Catholic. Lehmeier spent the last two seasons as an assistant under Butschle as Raiders offensive coordinator. The Vikings edged the Raiders in a Week 8 dandy last season, 28-25.

10.27: Mt. Lebanon at Canon-McMillan

Could a playoff berth be up for grabs when these two close out the regular season with a Week 9 showdown at Big Mac Stadium in Canonsburg? Both teams earned a playoff berth in 2022; however, the Blue Devils’ convincing win over the Big Macs in the season finale, 31-0, lifted Lebo into second place and dropped Canon-Mac into fourth place. Since expansion to six classes, Mt. Lebanon is 8-1 vs. Canon-McMillan.

Tags: , , , ,

More Football

Belle Vernon seniors celebrate back-to-back WPIAL, PIAA football titles
Ligonier Valley, Latrobe, Jeannette coaches eager for East/West All-Star game
Leechburg coach Randy Walters selected to coaching staff for U.S. Tackle National Team
Top Western Pa. quarterbacks set to show skills at 4th Willie Thrower camp
WPIAL to hold eligibility hearing for Aliquippa football transfer Jamar Allen