CTK ’14: WPIAL A Big 7 Conference Preview

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Friday, August 22, 2014 | 2:49 PM


Prior to 2005, the Big Seven Conference was the standard for Class A football in Western Pennsylvania. A conference member had claimed 16 WPIAL championships, but that came to an end with the rise to power of the Clairton Bears, who won six titles in seven years and ran off an amazing winning streak to put them among the nation’s best.

The conference was dominated by the Rochester Rams, who won seven WPIAL titles during that stretch. The Sto-Rox Vikings moved in and took two straight trips to Heinz Field but could not come home with gold, falling to Clairton in 2012 and Cardinal Wurhl North Catholic in 2013.

Sto-Rox and Laurel have left the conference. Riverside drops down to Class A for the first time and Vincentian Academy begins it’s first season of conference play in a tough spot.

Some might say the conference is down compared to past seasons, one program’s fans would not agree. The Neshannock Lancers have gone from the bottom of  the conference to WPIAL semifinalists the last two years and the Lancers are on a short list of teams that could make the trip to Heinz Field in 2014.

Here is a look at all of the Big Seven teams and the predicted order of finish:

NESHANNOCK LANCERS:

The rise to power for the Lancers goes along with the head coach. Fred Mozzicio took over two seasons ago and the tide changed for Neshannock football. The Lancers shared the conference title in 2012 with Sto-Rox and Rochester and missed out on a conference title last year by one yard in a televised loss at Sto-Rox in Week 3. The Lancers have made the semifinals the last two seasons, falling to a pair of eventual state champions in Clairton and Cardinal Wurhl North Catholic.

The Lancers went 9-3 last season and 7-1 in the conference. With the loss of Sto-Rox, Neshannock is likely the favorite in the Big Seven. Gone is all everything quarterback Ernie Burkes, who ran for as many touchdowns as he threw for in his career. But Neshannock is still ready for the challenge and looks to make a long playoff run in 2014.

Senior running back Eli Owens returns with 2,689 career yards, including 1,489 last season and 13 touchdowns, he was named first team all conference and an MSA Sports Player to Watch. Owens does come off of knee surgery, the injury occurred during the first quarter of the semifinal loss. Owens did not play in the first scrimmage and his progress will be monitored in the early part of the season.

Neshannock does have another returning running back in speedy junior Robert Lindsey, who ran for four scores last season. The receiving core is strong with seniors Rocco Fazio and Jimmy Medure back, the duo combined for 40 catches and nine touchdowns in 2013. Fazio is also capable of carrying the ball if his number is called.

Sophomore Frank Antuono takes over at quarterback, with a 220 pound frame, look for the Lancers to be a run-first team in 2014. Second team all-conference lineman Zach Barnes will again start up front with senior Adam Wawrzynski, both will be three year starters. Watch out for sophomore tight end Ty Sear, at 6-5 and 240 pounds.

Neshannock allowed only 14 points per game last season, the defense will be a strong part of the 2014 campaign. Senior Seth Dueitt is an MSA Sports Player to Watch in the secondary, he was named first team all-conference as a junior. Fazio and senior Jeff Sanflippo return as starters as well in the backfield.

The Lancers are strong at linebacker as well with Medure, Antuono and junior Matt Natale. Sophomore Sean Doran is a player to watch at nose guard for Neshannock.

Neshannock has 39 players in camp, the Lancers open the season on the road in Hookstown against South Side on the MSA Sports Network.

RIVERSIDE PANTHERS:

The Panthers have not made the playoffs since 2007, when they went to the semifinals as a member of the Tri-County North, but hope the drop to single-A will help get the program back on the right track.

Riverside improved on a horrific 2012 season, a year in which they gave up 428 points and had six of nine games go to the mercy rule. The Panthers only allowed 273 points last season, an average of 41 per game and went 1-8 overall. But Riverside ended a losing streak with a win over Freedom in the final game of the season and looks to build for 2014.

Head coach Tom Liberty returns for his fourth season and does have some talent returning for 2014. Junior QB Jason Dambach threw for 808 yards last season. 

Junior speedster Marcel Cleckley was the bulk of the offense with 33 catches and four touchdowns. Senior Dalton Hewitt is also back for another season.

The offensive and defensive lines will be anchored by senior Shane Reich. Senior Jake Alters and juniors Garrett Bishop and Mark Glevicky will start on offense.

Riverside will wait a week to open Big Seven play, the Panthers travel to Dormont to take on Bishop Canevin for a Saturday night game.

ROCHESTER RAMS:

The Rams fell on hard times in 2013, falling to 2-7 and missing the playoffs for the first time in ages, actually 1996.

Rochester lost their last five games and were outscored 247-59 during that stretch. The Rams averaged only 13 points per game and allowed 39 on the year as Rochester ended conference play at 2-6.

Senior QB Chase Long threw for just 368 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Senior running back Ishmal Tucker did run for 9 scores and 378 yards last year.

Also figuring in the backfield mix are junior Montrail Strozier and senior Jaevon Harris. Christian Vreen will also get some touches, both at quarterback and running back.

A pair of seniors return on the offensive line, Brandon Hopkins and Zach Tame. Senior Austin James starts at tight end.

Junior Donovan Manderson leads the defense at linebacker.

15th year head coach Eugene Matsook looks to right the ship and find a way to get the Rams back into the post-season.

SHENANGO WILDCATS:

The Wildcats have 44 players in camp for the 2014 campaign, the second under Mike Commesso. Shenango lost three straight games to end the season and take the Wildcats out of playoff contention.

The Wildcats were 2-7 last year, 1-7 in the Big Seven. Shenango averaged just 13 points per game and allowed 25 last season.

Shenango has not made the playoffs since 2006, in the old Tri-County North Conference. The Wildcats moved to Friday last season, from their traditional Saturday night home schedule at Glenn “Pop” Johnston Stadium. The change did not help the Wildcats, Shenango has had only one winning season at home since 06, the Cats’ are 9-21 on their home field. That must change if Shenango is to make the playoffs this year.

Junior Evan Kendall will take over at quarterback this season. Commesso said Kendall is developing into a leader for the Wildcats, he started three games as a sophomore.

A pair of juniors, Tyler Root and Hunter Waskin will likely get the nod at tailback. Junior Jason Wallace will be the fullback.

Shenango does have experience on the offensive line, seniors Dom Westbay and Steve Murcko both started last year. Juniors Nate Gonsar and Curtis Schotsch are expected to start, Schotsch has done extra point duties in the past. 

David Petrucci and Michael Black will be among the starters on the defensive line.

Shenango will open the season at Western Beaver.

SOUTH SIDE BEAVER RAMS:

The Rams take an 11 game losing streak into 2014. The Rams went 0-9 overall and allowed 34 points per game. South Side has not make the playoffs since 2009.

Coach Glenn McDougal must find a way to turn the offense around, averaging 13 points per game. The coach is back for his second term at South Side, he won both WPIAL and PIAA gold in 1999.

Senior Nathan Block was named second team all-conference last season, running for 666 yards and six touchdowns at running back. Block also threw for 540 yards and five scores, he’ll be the quarterback this season.

Junior Quae-Shawn Thompson also returns, the speedster will have to get some more touches in 2014, also figuring in the backfield will be senior Cody Campbell.

Senior Jake Burger returns at tight end, junior wide out Cameron Smith figures to be the main target.

Senior Joey Arrigo anchors the offensive line, he was named second team all-conference, he will be helped out by senior Austin Boone and junior Kyle McLaughlin.

Block is the leader on defense at linebacker, he may also move to safety. Thompson and Smith will also start in the secondary.

Arrigo starts on the defensive line, Boone and Burger will be at linebacker.

UNION SCOTTIES:

Stacy Robinson is the dean of coaches in the Big Seven with 18 consecutive seasons. He has battled the numbers game at Union over the years as the Scotties are one of the WPIAL’s smallest schools. Robinson takes over extra duties this year as the school’s athletic director.

Union was 2-1 entering week 4 last season, but the Scotties fell 20-0 at Western Beaver and finished 3-5 in the conference and 4-5 overall. The Scotties missed the playoffs after making the playoffs in 2012 and going to the quarterfinals before falling to Sto-Rox.

The numbers have increased at Union with 28 players in camp to start the season. Senior quarterback Anthony Rush will lead the offense, along with a pair of senior running backs, Julian Johnson and David Sadler and junior Jordan Best. Junior Anthony Bertolino will start at wide receiver.

Robinson said the offensive line is young and inexperienced, the Scotties may start a number of underclassmen up front, including sophomore Zach Monswil and junior tight end Logan Shuler.

Defensively, Sadler and Johnson will lead the defense from the linebacker position, Rush will be in the secondary along with Best and Bertolino. Monswil will start at tackle.

The Scotties host Rochester to open the season.

VINCENTIAN ACADEMY ROYALS:

The Royals enter WPIAL conference play for the first time, coming off a 1-8 record last season. Vincentian Academy played against the Tri-County South schools for the last two years, making for some long trips.

Coach Tim Storino brings back some experience for this year, all 11 starters return on defense. Junior Paul Adams and senior Anthony Tommarello will anchor the linebacking core. Both made over 90 tackles last season.

Three year starter and senior Michael Tappe will start at QB. Junior Anthony Della Valle and Micahel Falgione return at running back. Senior Mitchell Athey caught nine touchdowns last season, sophomore David Fleming and senior Jake Thomas will also be main targets.

The offensive line is anchored by two year starter Chris Henderson and sophomore Domenic Hite.

The Royals will share Lt. J.C. Stone Field in North Park with Cardinal Wurhl North Catholic. Vincentian Academy opens the season at home hosting Brentwood and travelling to Northgate in week 2 before hosting Union in their conference opener.

WESTERN BEAVER GOLDEN BEAVERS:

Head coach Matt Gray saw the Golden Beavers return to the playoffs in 2013 with an up and down 5-5 record, but 5-3 in the Big Seven. Western Beaver averaged just 20 points on offense and allowed 25 on defense last season.

Senior Hunter Roknich returns, he played quarterback as a sophomore but battled several injuries. Roknich moved to running back last season and ran for 1,208 yards and 14 touchdowns, he was named first team all-conference. Roknich will move back to quarterback for 2014, however don’t be surprised if Roknich leads the team in carries running from a wildcat or spread formation.

The receiving core for Western are both seniors in Brandon Davis and Cory Acon. Seniors Robert Halvin and John Sosack join Roknich in the backfield, both have lots of playing time under their belts.

The offensive line is strong with junior Gary Smith leading the way, along with senior Evan McNeely and junior Anthony Ward. Smith has done the kicking for the Golden Beavers.

MSA SPORTS PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1.    NESHANNOCK LANCERS

2.    WESTERN BEAVER GOLDEN BEAVERS

3.    RIVERSIDE PANTHERS

4.    UNION SCOTTIES

5.    ROCHESTER RAMS

6.    SHENANGO WILDCATS

7.    VINCENTIAN ACADEMY ROYALS

8.    SOUTH SIDE BEAVER RAMS

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