Breaking down the 2022 WPIAL football playoffs

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Saturday, October 29, 2022 | 7:37 PM


Class 6A

Favorite: North Allegheny, which is seeking its first WPIAL title since 2012, took care of business in the regular season. The Tigers went 4-0 in conference play to finish alone in first place, but didn’t blow anybody away in the process. They had a one-point win, a four-point win and two 14-point wins. But NA has played good defense all season, holding opponents to 12.5 points per game. The team’s top rusher is senior Andrew Gavlik, who handled 25 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown in Week 9.

Challengers: Mt. Lebanon is the defending WPIAL and PIAA champion. The Blue Devils graduated much of last year’s lineup, but this year’s squad just outscored its final three opponents 78-3 to build some momentum. Coach Bob Palko won his ninth WPIAL title last season. Central Catholic has the most future Division I talent among the 6A teams, led by four-star linebacker Anthony Speca and three-star receiver Peter Gonzalez. The Vikings won four WPIAL titles in the past six years. Junior QB Payton Wehner is closing in on 2,000 passing yards.

Don’t overlook: Canon-McMillan is looking for its first playoff win since 2004, but the Big Macs are no pushover this year. They beat Seneca Valley and stayed competitive in losses to North Allegheny and Central Catholic.

Prediction: North Allegheny over Central Catholic

Class 5A

Favorite: Bethel Park didn’t start the year as the WPIAL favorite, but the Black Hawks put themselves there with an impressive seven-game winning streak that’s still active. They have a strong ground game led by running backs Austin Caye and Gavin Moul, complemented with jet sweeps by receiver Ryan Petras. Bethel Park hasn’t won a WPIAL title since 2008 but returned 18 starters from last year’s playoff team.

Challengers: Pine-Richland lost three of its first four games but became a different team since senior Ryan Palmieri moved back to quarterback. The Rams have won six in a row, including triumphs over North Allegheny and Central Catholic. First-year coach Jon LeDonne won WPIAL and PIAA titles at Penn Hills in 2018. Franklin Regional owns the highest-scoring offense in 5A at 34.1 ppg. Roman Sarnic is a dual-threat QB who averages better than 100 yards rushing and passing. Gateway was the preseason favorite in 5A behind junior QB Brad Birch, a 1,600-yard passer with 16 TDs this season. Upper St. Clair finished second to Bethel Park in the Allegheny Six, but the Panthers also have a veteran team with playoff experience.

Don’t overlook: Penn-Trafford is the defending WPIAL and PIAA champion. The Warriors grabbed a wild card spot this year by defeating Franklin Regional, 28-21, in the regular-season finale.

Prediction: Pine-Richland over Bethel Park

Class 4A

Favorite: Aliquippa made its case as the favorite Friday night by defeating rival Central Valley, 35-24, to win the Parkway Conference title. The Quips are the reigning state champions, and they’re trying to extend a remarkable streak of reaching the WPIAL finals to 15 years in a row. The defense is allowing only 10 ppg, and the team has a strong running game, led by sophomore Tiqwai Hayes, who has more than 1,500 rushing yards and 26 TDs.

Challengers: Central Valley won the PIAA Class 3A title a year ago, before realignment moved the Warriors up to 4A. They’d built a 36-game winning streak until Aliquippa ended it Friday. RB Bret FitzSimmons has more than 1,400 yards and 24 TDs. Thomas Jefferson was seemingly having a down season, but that changed quickly with one win over McKeesport. TJ is now chasing its fifth WPIAL title in seven years. Wisconsin recruit Jordan Mayer is a difference-maker at DE and TE. McKeesport was undefeated behind standout RB Bobbie Boyd, but the Tigers were tripped up by TJ, 20-10. McKeesport last won a WPIAL title in ‘05. Armstrong has one of the WPIAL’s top QBs in Penn recruit Cadin Olsen, who ranks among the top 10 all-time passers in the WPIAL.

Don’t overlook: Laurel Highlands won its first-ever playoff game last season behind star QB Rodney Gallagher, a West Virginia WR recruit. He’ll try to take the Mustangs farther this postseason.

Prediction: Aliquippa over Central Valley

Class 3A

Favorite: Belle Vernon hasn’t won a WPIAL title since 1995, but the Leopards had a chance last season before losing to Aliquippa in the 4A final. Now, they’ve dropped to 3A, where they’re favored to reach Acrisure Stadium. They have the top-ranked junior recruit in the state in Quinton Martin, a RB who scored five TDs in Friday’s 48-14 win over Elizabeth Forward.

Challengers: Avonworth is only a few seasons removed from winning a WPIAL title in 2019. This year’s Antelopes team won the Western Hills Conference and has an eight-game winning streak since losing to Central Valley, 37-22, in Week 1. Freeport won the Allegheny 6 title behind senior RB Ben Lane, who has 17 touchdowns. Elizabeth Forward, which has never won a WPIAL title, is hoping to take the next step after reaching the semifinals in 2021 and the finals in ’20.

Don’t overlook: Like Belle Vernon, West Mifflin and Beaver are also newcomers to Class 3A who played last year in 4A. They finished in a tie with South Park for second place in the Western Hills.

Prediction: Belle Vernon over Avonworth

Class 2A

Favorite: Steel Valley also was the No. 1 seed last season, but the Ironmen’s playoff run was cut short in the semifinals when they lost their star senior to injury. Now a year later, senior QB Cruce Brookins is trying to lead them to the finals. Brookins, a Kent State DB commit, has 19 TDs. The offense averaged 46.2 points, best in WPIAL 2A. Steel Valley owns six WPIAL titles, the most recent in 2018.

Challengers: Beaver Falls, the team that upset Steel Valley last season, is poised for another playoff run. Jaren Brickner is a dual-threat QB who rushed for three TDs in Friday’s win over Western Beaver to clinch the Midwestern title outright. Sto-Rox is the second-highest scoring team in WPIAL 2A, averaging 41.7 points behind senior QB Josh Jenkins, a 1,800-yard passer with 21 TDs. The Vikings reached the 2021 semifinals, but changed coaches since with Marvin Mills taking over. Neshannock and Serra Catholic are second-place teams with title hopes. Serra Catholic won the 2A title last season. Neshannock QB Jonny Huff is a 1,000-yard passer and rusher.

Don’t overlook: McGuffey finished third in the Century but played Sto-Rox as well as anyone in the conference. The Highlanders lost 6-0 in Week 5.

Prediction: Steel Valley over Sto-Rox

Class A

Favorite: There’s probably no bigger favorite in the WPIAL this postseason than Bishop Canevin. The Crusaders are the defending champions and have outscored WPIAL opponents 389-51. Their only loss was to District 3’s Steelton-Highspire in Week Zero. Xavier Nelson is a 1,000-yard WR, Marquis Carter is a 1,000-yard RB, and combined they’ve scored more than two dozen TDs. The WPIAL title Canevin won last year was the second in school history and the first since 1990.

Challengers: Laurel reached the WPIAL 2A quarterfinals last season before dropping to Class A. The Spartans are led by senior RB Landon Smith, a 1,400-yard rusher with 22 TDs. Greensburg Central Catholic ran through the Eastern Conference undefeated behind the QB/RB tandem of Tyree Turner (19 TDs) and Da’sjon Craggette (19 TDs). GCC did lose to Canevin, 30-14, in Week 1. Mapletown celebrated an undefeated regular season for the first time since 1968. Now, the Maples are trying to boost the lackluster playoff record of the Tri-County South. Six Class A teams average more than 40 points per game: Leechburg (47.7), Mapletown (46.5), GCC (44.4), Laurel (44.2), California (43.5) and Canevin (40.3).

Don’t overlook: Clairton. How could anyone overlook a team that’s won 10 WPIAL titles since 2005? The Bears finished second in the Eastern behind GCC, but nonconference losses to OLSH and Rochester earned them only a No. 9 seed.

Prediction: Bishop Canevin over Laurel

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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