CTK ’14: WPIAL AAA Big Nine Conference Preview

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Saturday, August 16, 2014 | 9:09 PM


The WPIAL realigned football conferences for this season, but the Big Nine stayed absolutely the same.

Look for the conference race to stay the same as it has for a number of years. In other words, look for Thomas Jefferson on top.

Thomas Jefferson has won or tied for the conference title eight consecutive seasons. The last time a team other than Thomas Jefferson won the title outright was West Mifflin in 2005.

Many project Thomas Jefferson as the team to beat. Ringgold could challenge, though. A few teams have new coaches this season. Here is a look at all of the teams in the Big Nine:

ALBERT GALLATIN COLONIALS

Albert Gallatin won two games last season. That might not sound like much, but the Colonials were winless the previous two seasons. And with a nice group of returning starters and with the increase in the  number of players on the roster (60 this season), Joe Embacher is looking for his team to improve even more in his second season as coach.

The Colonials have five starters returning on offense and seven on defense. The lines will be anchored by 6-3, 340-pound Trey Caveliere. Two other starters return on the line – 6-2, 250-pound Hunter Matthews and 6-2, 250-pound Jacob Boyd.

Hunter Moody returns at quarterback. As a sophomore, the threw for 573 yards. But the Colonials must develop a running back as the top three rushers graduated – Collin Smith, Chris Hlatky and Branden Dice.

Other returning starters are receiver-defensive back Joey Embacher, receiver-defensive back Tristin Kaiser, receiver-defensive end Dom Doyle, running back Dante Jamison and running back-linebacker John Dennis.

BELLE VERNON LEOPARDS

The new coach at Belle Vernon is no stranger to football in the Big Nine.

Matt Humbert takes over at Belle Vernon after a very good run at Ringgold. He was 28-13 in four seasons at Ringgold. One of the reasons he came to Belle Vernon is that he also got a teaching job there.

Humbert inherits a team that seems to have some potential. Former coach Aaron Krepps guided the Leopards to a 4-6 record last season, although the Leopards were decimated by injuries to key players. Whether a few of those players can come back from those injuries will be key to this team’s season.

Travis Snyder is a senior quarterback with three years of varsity experience. But he sustained a season-ending knee injury last season. He completed 29 of 60 for 489 yards before the injury.

Anthony Levis was a 1,000-yard rusher two seasons ago, but missed last season with an injury.

Mike Fine took offer for Snyder last year as a freshman. Two sophomores became the leading rushers last year and are back – Luke Durigon and Derek Verkleeren. Durigon rushed for 557 yards on 97 carries and Verkleeren 193 on 31 attempts.

The top two receivers graduated and how well the lines play could be key. Belle Vernon does feature one of the best linemen in the conference in 6-4, 260-pound Devin Hannan.

ELIZABETH FORWARD WARRIORS

What will life be like in A.D. – After Davidson.

Quarterback-defensive back JaQuan Davidson was one of the best all-around players in the WPIAL last season, but is now at Pitt. He led the Warriors to a 6-4 record and one of their best seasons in a while. Also gone is big-play receiver Matt Bernadowski.

Finding a capable quarterback will be a key for the Warriors. Ryan Wardropper returns at running back after rushing for 446 yards on 58 carries.

Deron McDonough and Adam Smith are ones to watch on the lines and Bill Miles at defensive back.

LAUREL HIGHLANDS MUSTANGS

The Mustangs finished tied with Trinity for last place in the conference a year ago and 1-9 overall. But with some experienced skill-position players, there is hope for improvement.

Jimmy Pierce was the quarterback last year as a sophomore. Although his completion percentage wasn’t high (44 of 115), the Mustangs hope he can be a dual-threat QB. He rushed for 502 yards on 146 attempts last year.

Jason Leone is back after rushing for 380 yards on 83 attempts and Chad Livingston had 160 on 27 attempts.

If the Mustangs lines come through, it could be a better season for this team.

RINGGOLD RAMS

Nick Milchovich takes over for Matt Humbert, who left for Belle Vernon. Humbert left behind a team that could maybe have the makings to give Thomas Jefferson a run for the conference title. Maybe. We might know a whole lot about how good both teams are when they square off in the season opener at Thomas Jefferson.

Ringgold has one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the state in Nico Law, who was a 1,000-1,000 player last season. Law completed 93 of 180 for 1,494 yards and 14 touchdowns and also rushed for 1,210 yards on 116 attempts. He will undoubtedly be the center of the offense for Milchovich, who also has been a head coach at California, Charleroi and Peters Township.

The Rams could have a strong running game with Law and 5-7, 170-pound junior running back-linebacker Chacar Berry, who rushed for 563 yards on 87 carries a year ago. But the top receivers graduated. Luke Baldesberger and Jake Gerard figure to be two of the top receivers this year and will also play on defense.

Overall, eight starters return on offense and seven on defense. One of the other best is defensive end Aaron Szakal (6-0, 240).

Other returning starters are defensive back Brandon Thomas, linebacker Conner Garry and fullback Jordan Briscoe. Returning on the lines are Daylen Penn, Robert Duda, Eric Higgs and Dante Todaro.

THOMAS JEFFERSON JAGUARS

Seven first-team all-conference players graduated from last year’s team, including Michigan recruit Chase Winovich. But the Jaguars never rebuild. They just reload.

Most still feel coach Bill Cherpak’s squad is the team to beat again. One of the main reasons is running back Austin Kemp. After missing his sophomore year with an injury, Kemp bounced back as a junior last season and rushed for 1,138 yards. He is back for his senior season.

Also back in the backfield is running back Ricky Daley, who rushed for 368 yards on 69 attempts, and Braden Pahanish, who had 311 on 35 carries.

Finding a capable quarterback will be key, but Cherpak usually is very good at developing a quarterback, even if it’s from another position.

Jake Guinn is a top lineman. Corey Payne and Russell Siess also are back on the lines.

TRINITY HILLERS

Like some other teams who finished low in the conference a year ago, the Hillers have reason to believe they will improve. A year ago, they were 1-8 overall and 1-7 in the conference.

The main reason for optimism is quarterback Forrest Cullings, a 6-4, 195-pound senior who is getting some interest from NCAA Division I-AA colleges. Snapping the ball to Cullings will be his brother, Toby, the team’s center.

Running back-defensive end Robert West is another one of the team’s top returners along with tight end-defensive end Aaron Britton.

You also can say the Hillers have the best kicker in the conference. Sam Trapuzzano was first-team all-conference a year ago.

UNIONTOWN RED RAIDERS

After winning only two games in each of the two previous seasons, the Raiders went 3-6 last year and missed the playoffs by one game. They were 3-5 in the conference.

It might again be tough to make the playoffs, but Uniontown should be competitive with some of the teams in this conference. Lyric Ellis is the top returnee. He made first-team all-conference at defensive back last season and was one of only two juniors on the first-team defense.

Defense is something the Raiders must improve. Uniontown gave up a whopping 41 points a game, worst in the conference. Laurel Highlands was next at 40.

Uniontown also has a talented lineman in Jeremy Perkins.

WEST MIFFLIN TITANS

The Titans challenged for the conference title again last season, losing to Thomas Jefferson for the second year in a row in the final regular-season game that decided the Big Nine championship.

The biggest question people throw around about West Mifflin this season is what will the Titans do without Jimmy Wheeler? He rushed for 4,000 yards in two seasons and led the Titans to the WPIAL title game two years ago.

But coach Ray Braszo had good teams before Wheeler, too, and he will probably have good ones after Wheeler.

This year’s team boasts one of the conference’s best linemen in Jordan Fontaine. He was a first-team all-conference defensive lineman a year ago. Also back is quarterback Karlyn Garner, who started last year as a sophomore and completed 47 of 74 for 864 yards.

West Mifflin will look to develop a speedy halfback. Second-leading rusher John Green also graduated. DiAngelo Mitchell did carry the ball some a year ago and also plays defense. Kevin Garbark caught 16 passes last year.

MSA SPORTS PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1.      Thomas Jefferson Jaguars

2.      Ringgold Rams

3.      West Mifflin Titans

4.      Belle Vernon Leopards

5.      Elizabeth Forward Warriors

6.      Uniontown Red Raiders

7.      Trinity Hillers

8.      Albert Gallatin Colonials

9.      Laurel Highlands Mustangs

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