CTK ’14: WPIAL AAA Greater Allegheny Conference Preview

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Friday, August 15, 2014 | 2:00 PM


The teams in the Greater Allegheny Conference will have something new to worry about this season. They hope to avoid the bite of the Gators.

One of the major changes in the WPIAL football landscape this year is Gateway dropping down to Class AAA. Since Gateway opened in the mid 1950s, the Gators had always played in the largest classification. But the school’s enrollment allowed the team to drop from Class AAAA to AAA this season.

It will be a new world for Gateway in the Greater Allegheny. The Gators have never played most of these teams. But it will also be a new world for the Gators because of the man at the top. Coach Tom Nola left Clairton after a number of WPIAL and state championships and took over at Gateway for Donnie Militzer, who was not kept after one season.

Another new team to the conference is Yough, which moved up from Class AA. Highlands and Derry left the conference, dropping to Class AA.

Overall in the Greater Allegheny, it seems many look at Mars as the team to beat. But Franklin Regional is always near the top of the conference. And then there is Gateway. The Gators lost many starters, but there always seems to be players at the school.

Here is a look at the Greater Allegheny:

FRANKLIN REGIONAL PANTHERS:

Four first-team all-conference players graduated off the offense, including versatile quarterback Charan Singh and standout receiver Colin Jonov. It will be interesting to see who develops at quarterback and if the Panthers can establish a passing game.

The running game has potential, though, and that’s because of Brett Zanotto. He is considered one of the top linebackers in the WPIAL and he already has accepted a scholarship to Maryland, who recruited him as a linebacker. But Zanotto also is fairly adept at running the ball. He rushed for 649 yards on 96 carries last season.

On defense, he is nasty. He had 157 tackles last season. He is 6 feet, 215 pounds and he also had scholarship offers from Syracuse, Boston College, Temple, Massachusetts and Eastern Michigan.

Otherwise, coach Greg Botta has holes to fill, but the Panthers are regularly one of the better teams.

GATEWAY GATORS:

Nola has gone from the black and orange of Clairton to the black and gold of Gateway. Nola won six WPIAL titles and four state championships in 12 years at Clairton.

Nola takes over a team that lost many of its top players, but don’t think for a second that the Gators’ swamp is bare. Gateway ALWAYS seems to have capable players.

The Gators had a strong passing game last year with Jimmy Moore and a few receivers who now are now on Division I college rosters. Gateway must develop a quarterback.

Running back Adam White the only skill-position player who saw much time last year. He rushed for 295 yards on 54 attempts.

But Gateway could have an advantage on the lines. Dominic Scassera, Hunter Dale, Robert Hainsey and Alex McCollum all return on the lines.

GREENSBURG-SALEM GOLDEN LIONS:

Dave Keefer begings his second year as the Lions’ coach after they went 3-7 last year and missed the playoffs. It will not be easy for the Lions to move into the top half of the conference, but improvement is a possibility.

Keefer must find a way to improve his team’s defense. That should be goal No. 1. The Lions gave up 33.6 points a game last season.

On offense, leading rusher Dom McKinley graduated. But Brady Mason at least has a little experience at quarterback, completing 27 of 67 for 375 yards last year. Lenny Greback is only 5-8, but he did show some promise last year as the team’s second-leading rusher and scored three touchdowns in the final game of the season.

HAMPTON TALBOTS:

The Talbots finished above .500 only once in the past four seasons and were 4-6 last year. Is this the year coach Jacque DeMatteo’s team rebounds?

Well, if an experienced quarterback means a lot, then Hampton should have some success this season. Nick Grabowski completed 89 of 197 for 1,368 yards last season and also rushed 70 times for 184 yards. But leading rusher C.J. Arch graduated as did the top three receivers. So Grabowski will have to shoulder a heavy load this season.

Hampton must improve defensively. That was the problem when Hampton played the good teams. In their final three games against Franklin Regional, Mars and Thomas Jefferson, the Talbots gave up 33, 42 and 39 points.

Still, a playoff spot is a possibility with this team.

HOLLIDAYSBURG GOLDEN TIGERS:

Hollidaysburg was 3-7 last year, but it could be a team to watch, just because a number of kids saw extensive playing time last season and have returned. Eight starters return on offense and nine on defense. That means a playoff spot is a possibility.

Zach Simpson leads the list of returnees. He is a 6-3, 280-pound two-way lineman who is getting interest from a few Division I-AA colleges. Andrew Vonada is another good-sized lineman at 6-3, 285 who started last year, along with 6-2, 277-pound Andy Rubritz.

Josh Bickley returns at quarterback after completing 48 of 88 for 774 yards. Ryan Waltz caught 20 passes for 421 yards and Colton Ruggery rushed for 262 yards. Ryan Adams returns at defensive back and can also play quarterback.

Other returning starters are halfback Jerico Hilling, receiver Seth Aungst, defensive back Chad Dongell, defensive back Chris Gilden, defensive back Mitch Augustine, linebacker Zach Weaver and defensive end Mike Roberts.

INDIANA LITTLE INDIANS:

The Little Indians are coming off a semi-successful season where they went 5-6 and won a WPIAL playoff game. Although they were 2-5 at one point, they won three consecutive games, including a playoff contest against Ringgold. The season ended with a loss to WPIAL champ West Allegheny in the quarterfinals.

Many have this year’s team pegged for the middle of the pack again in the Greater Allegheny. The team has potential for a solid passing game. Sean Thompson was the team’s quarterback last season, but Jake Zilinskas, son of coach Mark Zilinskas, saw plenty of playing time also. Jake completed 24 of 51 for 448 yards.

Zilinskas can throw to one of Class AAA’s best receivers. Riley Stapleton, a 6-4 senior, caught 50 passes for 702 yards last season and made first-team all-conference.

If Indiana is to be a playoff team again, keys will be line play and developing a solid running attack.

KNOCH KNIGHTS:

With the return of its entire backfield, optimism is in the air at Knoch.

It might be tough to crack the top three teams in the conference, but the Knights are a team to watch after finishing 4-5 last season. Quarterback Daniel Farinelli completed 82 of 175 for 1,175 yards last season. Cody Milsom will lead the running game after rushing for 854 yards. Ben Lowery (291 yards rushing) also returns.

Knoch also has one of the better linemen in the Greater Allegheny in Sam Whalen. He is only 5-8, but he made first-team all-conference on defense last season.

MARS FIGHTING PLANETS:

The Planets finished 9-2 last season and many around the WPIAL are talking about Mars being even better this season.

True, quarterback Owen Nearhoof and all of his receivers graduated. But Mars has one of the top running backs in the WPIAL and some experienced, big, talented linemen. Put it all together and this has to be one of the top five teams in Class AAA heading into the season.

Josh Schultheis has rushed for more than 3,000 yards the past two seasons and should easily surpass 4,000 career yards, barring injury. He had 1,645 yards on 214 carries and 1,687 yards on 224 attempts the past two seasons.

The lines look strong. Gabe Spurlock was a first-team all-conference offensive linemen. Marshall Robinson is 6-3, 350 pounds and is getting some looks from some Division I colleges.

YOUGH COUGARS:

After making the Class AA playoffs and winning a playoff game against Kittanning, Yough has to step up in class. It won’t be easy for the Cougars, but six starters return on offense and the defense has potential with the return of nine starters.

The graduation of Tyler Donahue left a big hole at quarterback. He had more than 2,000 yards offense last season. Developing a quarterback will be key if the Cougars are to have some success.

But Yough has the makings for a decent running game. Senior Clay Waldron rushed for 746 yards on 127 attempts last season and also is a dangerous receiver. He caught 47 passes for 524 yards a year ago.

Tom Sever is another one of the top returnees at tight end and defensive line.

Other returning starters are senior lineman Seth Miller, senior guard-linebacker Tobi Kuruda, senior linebacker Rick Jaffie, junior receiver-defensive back Ben Baldwin, senior defensive back Eric Baer, junior slotback-linebacker Eric Borkovich and junior receiver-defensive back Bryan Jordan.

MSA SPORTS PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1.      Mars Fighting Planets

2.      Gateway Gators

3.      Franklin Regional Panthers

4.      Knoch Knights

5.      Indiana Little Indians

6.      Hampton Talbots

7.      Hollidaysburg Golden Tigers

8.      Yough Cougars

9.      Greensburg-Salem Golden Lions

 

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