CTK ’14: WPIAL AAAA Southeastern Conference Preview

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | 4:55 PM


While Upper St. Clair and Woodland hills battled for the top spot in the Quad-A Southeastern Conference in 2013, much the same as they did in 2012, one team that missed out on the WPIAL football playoffs in 2012 was back into the postseason in 2013 while a long time playoff team and co-champion in the conference in 2012 was a rare spectator come playoff time in 2013.

Some things stayed the same in the conference made up of teams east of Pittsburgh as well as south of the city…like Upper St. Clair beating out Woodland Hills for the section crown in the regular season, only to see the Wolverines eliminate the Panthers for the second straight season in the district Semifinals.

Then again, some things changed. Like Penn Hills back in the postseason mix after improving from a rare down year at 3-6 in 2012 to 5-4 in the regular season while Mount Lebanon went from co-champs at 8-1 in the regular season in 2012 to 3-6 and a disappointing seventh place finish last fall.

One change to the conference in 2014 is that one of the eastern teams, Plum, has been moved into the Foothills Conference, leaving the Southeastern with eight teams instead of the nine it had the last two years.

Here is a look at the Southeastern Conference:

BALDWIN HIGHLANDERS:

The first year of the Pete Wagner era in the Land of Purple was a successful one. While the improvement record wise was only one game, going from 3-6 in 2012 to 4-5 in 2013. But that one extra win allowed Baldwin to make it back to the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2009. The Highlanders stay in the postseason was a short one as they fell 56-10 in the opening round to eventual champion Pittsburgh Central Catholic.

There are a lot of reasons why expectations are bigger for Baldwin this fall and it all starts with an experienced offensive and defensive line led by Penn State recruit Sterling Jenkins. The 6’8, 301-pound standout is the #4 ranked offensive tackle in the country by Scout.com and he is ranked #8 by Rivals.com. Along with Jenkins, the Highlanders experienced line will include 6’3, 290-pound junior tackle Brendan Badstibner, 6’2, 240-pound center Matt George and 6’1, 285-pound junior guard Zack Brown.

The Highlanders have experience under center as well as four-year starter Doug Altavilla returns. The senior was 134 of 254 passing a year ago for 1,705 yards and 21 touchdowns, plus he rushed for 233 yards and two scores. With leading receiver Luke Smorey graduating, Doug’s top target could be younger brother Nick Altavilla who had 14 catches for 115 yards a year ago. Senior tight end Josh Zinsmeister also will be a factor in the passing game after his 14.5 average yards per catch last year made him a second team all-conference player.

Nick Barca also graduated after rushing for over one thousand yards a year ago, leaving senior running back Rocco Ruscitto to carry a bulk of the work out of the backfield. Another player to watch on offense in both the running and passing game will be senior Donnie West.

BETHEL PARK BLACK HAWKS:

While Bethel Park made some noise in the regular season, winning six of their nine games and finishing third in the Southeastern Conference, the Hawks were very quiet come postseason time as they failed to advance past Round One after being blanked by three-time defending champion North Allegheny 28-0.

Veteran head coach Jeff Metheny does have some skilled players with experience led by his son, Levi. The junior signal caller begins his third year under center after throwing four touchdown passes and rushing for eight scores a year ago. Leading rusher and receiver from 2013 also returns in senior Alex Minton. The senior rushed for nearly 500 yards and had eleven receptions last fall.

Other key players for the black and orange are tailback/cornerback Chiante Pryor, tight end/linebacker Jake Dixon and wide receiver/defensive back Chris Papalia, who is also one of the top punters in the classification. The Back Hawks were hit hard by graduation on the line, but do return Sean Davis up front on both sides of the ball.

Bethel Park had the sixth stingiest defense among the 16 Quad-A playoff teams last year, but they need to find a way to score more, as they ranked 15th in points-scored among the postseason field of 16. Some help might come from a newcomer in kicker Matt Monte. Coach Metheny did not receive any help from the schedule maker as the Black Hawks open up with defending champion Pittsburgh Central Catholic in Week One, followed by conference powers Woodland Hills and Upper St. Clair in Week 2 and Week 3.      

CANON-McMILLAN BIG MACS:

These have been lean years for Canon-McMillan football. The Big Macs have not been to the playoffs since 2008 and have not won more than one game in a season since they finished 3-6 in 2009. The last four years, Canon-Mac has finished with a combined record of 3-34.

Second year coach Ron Coder continues to bring the enthusiasm to the blue and gold as they hope to add to their win total and be in the hunt for a postseason berth this fall.

The Big Macs do return six starters on offense and five on defense led by quarterback Jordan Smith. The 6’4 junior threw for over 200 yards a year ago. Smith will rely on senior Justin Mattola to anchor the rushing attack and sophomore wide receiver Logan Higham to be a big target in the pass game.

Canon-McMillan has plenty of experience returning on the line of scrimmage including University of Pitt recruit Alex Paulina. The senior checks in at 6’4 and 280-pounds. Joining him up front are 6’2, 275-pound senior George Carson, 6’2 225-pound senior Jared Hladycz and 5’11 230-pound Will Graziani. Junior linebacker Shane Danyo and senior defensive back Dylan Dzikowski are two players to watch on defense.

MOUNT LEBANON BLUE DEVILS:

Talk about a roller coaster start. A year after tying rival Upper St. Clair for a share of the Southeastern Conference title in his first year, the bottom fell out for Coach Mike Melnyk and his young Mount Lebanon team in his second year. 2013 was a RARE year that Lebo missed the playoffs. Out of 26 Class AAAA teams last year, the Blue Devils were 15th in points allowed and 19th in points scored.

While leading rusher Jake Rolfson and top receiver Troy Apke have graduated, the Blue Devils leading passer from a year ago returns in junior Eddie Jenkins, who took over in Week 6 for Kellan Stout under center and ended up hitting on 50 of 74 passes for 752 yards and seven touchdowns. He also ended up as the team’s third leading rusher with 108 yards on 29 carries and a pair of scores. Stout, who also is back as a senior, threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns.

Like Edwards, another player back who enjoyed a break out sophomore season last fall is running back Brian Ward. He was the team’s second leading rusher with 264 yards on 49 carries (5.4 yard average) and two touchdowns. Others who had success a year ago are senior receivers Shane Lefever and Brennan Wells, junior receiver Nick Tommasi along with senior tailbacks Joey Stabile and Alex Englert and sophomore David Harvey.

On defense, senior Ben Bruni is a two year starter at linebacker. Leading the Blue Devils in the trenches is senior lineman Matt Hoffman, who is committed to Penn this summer. Joining him up front are senior Matt Christman and juniors Hunter Cazin and Paul Grattan. Another weapon for Mount Lebanon will be senior kicker Rob Costantino, who booted eight of nine field goals and all 20 extra points a year ago as a junior.

PENN HILLS INDIANS:

2013 was a bounce back season of sorts for Penn Hills. After the rarest of rare in which the Indians missed the 2012 playoffs, Penn Hills bounced back to finish 5-4 last fall. Their return to the postseason was brief though as the Indians lost 22-16 to Penn-Trafford. Now third year coach John Peterman hopes his team can reach the playoffs and have success in the postseason, something they haven’t done since 2009.

The Indians have eight starters back on both sides of the ball, including their leading passer and rusher who is wrapped up into one special package. Junior quarterback Billy Kisner was 31 of 79 passing a year ago for 477 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 1,191 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground.

Two other weapons on offense with Kisner is senior running back TeShan Campbell, who rushed for nearly 400 yards a year ago and senior wide receiver Isaiah Jones who rushed for 873 yards and caught 6 passes for 112 yards. The two combined for eleven touchdowns. Other key contributors on both sides of the ball for the Indians are expected to be senior tight ends DeAndra Winbush-Schifino and Greg Hoolahan, sophomore receiver Rick Squires and cornerback Darrell Holloway.

Senior Mike Ames, junior Jaason Alston and Thomas Mitchell are keys to a line which Coach Peterman acknowledges was a weakness when he took over two years. The numbers alone of lineman on the team has grown from 8 to 30, giving the Indians needed depth in the trenches.

PETERS TOWNSHIP INDIANS:

In Rich Piccinini’s three years as head coach at Peters Township, the Indians have been a model of consistency, making the playoffs all three years with a 4-6 record followed up by back-to-back 5-5 marks. Hit hard by graduation, the team might be hard pressed to make it four consecutive postseason trips.

Only three Indians on offense and four on defense return this fall, meaning a lot of newcomers are going to have to step it up. One player returning is senior quarterback Cory Owen, who hit on 36 of 98 passes for 501 yards and a touchdown last year. Owen was also the teams second leading rusher with 762 yards on the ground and ten touchdowns.

Senior Tim Swoope was the fourth leading receiver and a big play target a year ago, averaging 11.3 yards a catch. Senior Christian Phelps return to anchor both lines while a pair of starting linebackers from the Indians team that lost 54-28 to McKeesport in the First Round of the playoffs last year are back in senior Jake Uhler and junior Collin Kovacs.

Peters Township will lean on a sophomore T.J. Kpan to spear head the running attack. Other newcomers that will likely play a big role for the Indians this fall are seniors Connor Freely at wide receiver and Ethan Anderson at receiver and safety, juniors Connor Manning at tight end/linebackers and Clayton Yeates and receiver/safety and sophomore receiver/defensive back Alan Snyder.

UPPER ST. CLAIR PANTHERS:

They say great programs don’t rebuild, they reload. If that’s the case, then the WPIAL’s winningest all time coach, Jim Render is going to need to a strong back with all the reloading he will be doing after Upper St. Clair lost 21 of 22 starters to graduation.

Senior Jesse Slinger is the lone starter returning at linebacker and punter. Joining Slinger at linebacker and likely getting the start at halfback is senior Marcus Galie. He rushed for 202 yards last year when filling in for Trevor Morrow and Mac Pope were banged up last year. Junior Brandon Ford also saw some time last year due to injury and will help anchor the line at tackle.

Senior Danny Trocano will likely win the job under center, replacing Joe Repischak who threw for 1,411 yards while rushing for 334 yards in 2013. Some of Trocano’s likely targets will be seniors Mike Krenn and Andrew Bartusiak along with juniors Adam Crisis and Doug Wagner.

The Panthers hope youth will be served as they rely on newcomers in junior linebacker and running back Connan Rooney along with three sophomores in Gabe Houy at defensive end/tight end, Blake Kadar at linebacker and running back and Tyler Vissman, who could be the go to guy at running back and linebacker for USC.

WOODLAND HILLS WOLVERINES: 

Two years in a row, George Novak’s Woodland Hills squad did not win the Southeastern Conference championship but made it to Heinz Field to play for the district title. But both years the Wolverines came up short of their record sixth Quad-A football crown. 2014 marks the fifth year anniversary of the last WPIAL championship won by Woody High and they hope to celebrate with more gold for the turquois and black.

There are many reasons for mile high hopes for the Wolverines this fall with the return of junior running back Miles Sanders. The Penn State recruit rushed for 1,064 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. He is joined in the backfield by Toledo recruit Art Thompkins (426 yards rushing and 228 yards receiving last fall) and junior h-back Jo-el Shaw.

Woodland Hills returns a big and experienced line with senior Jake Cassidy, senior Daniel Gibson, senior Kevin Soloman and Akira McLean. Three other players to watch on defense are senior linebacker Jordan Lee and senior defensive backs Jihad Brown and Mike Nash.

There is a big hole to fill at quarterback with the graduation of Harry Randall, who passed for 873 yards and was the team’s second leading rusher with 803 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns. Senior Jeremiah Jones will take over under center. In a reserve role last year, Jones was 14 of 20 passing for 250 yards and two touchdowns.

MSA SPORTS PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1.   Woodland Hills Wolverines

2.   Penn Hills Indians

3.   Upper St. Clair Panthers

4.   Bethel Park Black Hawks

5.   Mount Lebanon Blue Devils

6.   Baldwin Highlanders

7.   Peters Township Indians

8.   Canon-McMillan Big Macs

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