CTK ’17 – 4-A Northwest Nine Conference Preview
By: Don Rebel
Monday, August 21, 2017 | 3:44 PM
Throughout the WPIAL, it is tough to imagine a conference more diverse than the 4A Northwest Nine. One team with a prolific spread offense passing attack, another with a team that threw the ball on average just over six times per game, and a couple of teams with quality dual-threat quarterbacks. Each week is a new challenge for the Northwest Nine.
Not only is the conference full of diverse talent, but strong teams top to bottom. Six or seven teams are expected to battle for playoff spots each year in the Northwest Nine.
Last year, it was the third-place team in the conference knocking off the undefeated conference champions in the first round of the playoffs and making a run to the WPIAL championship game. Who knows what twists and turns the 2017 campaign might take.
Here’s a look at the teams in the Northwest Nine this year:
Terry George’s first season with the Bridgers was one to forget. However, after a winless 2016 campaign and carrying a ten-game losing streak, the Ambridge coaching staff is optimistic for improvement. Last season, it was difficult to find a player on the young Ambridge team with any previous varsity playing time. While still young in 2017, returning starters will be more confident and experienced .
The Bridgers offense only tallied 26 points all year in 2016. The offense should open up more after a year’s experience. The big issue on the offense is, the bigs, as Ambridge graduated all five starters from the offensive line.
Noah Campalong will likely return as the starting signal-caller for Ambridge, as will running back Mahki Robinson. He will share carries with Demarri Jones, who returns to Ambridge after transferring to Moon last year. Jones will take his Bridgers back to Moon Area to kickoff the season, as the Tigers will host Montour in Week Zero.
With the new classifications last season, the Cougars found themselves in uncharted waters with new rivals in an unfamiliar conference. Finishing 4-4 in conference play last year, coach Joe Lamenza’s squad just missed out on a playoff bid after losing the final two games of the season to Montour and New Castle. While a disappointing finish dashed playoff aspirations for Blackhawk, their 5-4 overall record was a huge turnaround from a 1-8 record in 2015.
Graduation has taken a toll on Blackhawk, as only one offensive starter returns. That one starter is Chris Deluca, who has started on both the offensive and defensive line since his freshman year. However, many players returning did see solid playing time, and now will have to transition to starting roles.
Replacing dual-threat quarterback Michael Savilsky, who accounted for 15 total touchdowns in his senior season last year, will prove to be tough. Senior Payton Stewart will step in behind center for Blackhawk. Stewart did see limited time for the Cougars last season. Helping Stewart in the back field will be returning starting running back Danny Shroads, who missed last year with an injury.
Blackhawk will not participate in Week Zero, and open at home against Knoch on September 1st. The Cougars have not qualified for the playoffs since 2012.
HIGHLANDS GOLDEN RAMS
After three consecutive trips to the post-season for Highlands, the Golden Rams missed out on the playoffs in 2016. Losing the final three games of the year did not help, including giving up 52 and 48 points, respectively, to South Fayette and Indiana to finish up the season.
New coach Dom Girardi takes over for Highlands. The 2000 Valley graduate is familiar with the program from his playing days and his early coaching career at schools in the area. Coach Girardi will be relying on running back Jermaine Jett, who will finally get a chance at the starting job after playing behind Elijah Jackson and Dom Martinka for the first three years of his career. He has over 1,000 career rushing yards, and led the team with 10 touchdowns as a sophomore. As the starter, those career totals can easily be doubled in his senior season.
The Golden Rams defense faltered down the stretch, and now will have to replace all-conference defenders in Martinka and Brayden Thimons. Highlands will also need to find a replacement for Thimons behind center. Junior Seth Cohen threw for two touchdowns in limited time last year. Coach Girardi and his staff will have two scrimmages to find Thimons’s replacement before a Week One conference clash with Ambridge.
INDIANA LITTLE INDIANS
JohnAllen Snyder’s first season of coaching his alma mater did not result in a trip to the postseason, but it sure did not disappoint in lighting up the scoreboard! Indiana scored 30+ points in four of their nine games. However, they also allowed 30+ points in six contests.
Junior quarterback Luke Thomas returns as the Little Indians’ signal caller. He threw for over 1,400 yards as a sophomore. However, he will be without all-conference receiver Ryan Hoff, whose 925 yards and 16 total touchdowns were lost to graduation.
The offensive line will be the key for Indiana’s 2017 success. Highly untested prior to last season, the men in the trenches did a great job over the course of the season. Four of five starters return on the offensive line, led by senior two-way starters Brant Newman and Alex Donahue.
Indiana hosts Laurel Highlands in a non-conference, Week One game. They host Montour in Week Two to kick off conference play.
Frank Whalen takes over for Mike King as head coach. Whalen was an assistant under King for seven of King’s 19 years as head coach. He will be bringing back the 3-5 defense that was strong during the early 2010’s, including a Knoch trip to the WPIAL Championship in 2011.
The defense will not be the only big change for Knoch, as the offense will look to install the triple option for the 2017 season. A lot of the offensive success will be through quarterback Jake Herrit, who will have some big shoes to fill for the Knoch Knights. He replaces all-conference player Mac Christy , who lead the team with 702 passing yards, 871 rushing yards, and 13 total touchdowns.
Many skill players return on both the offense and defense for the Knights, who look to improve from a 2-7 year last season. They aim for a return trip to the playoffs, starting with a Week One battle at Blackhawk.
MARS FIGHTING PLANETS
One thing that is a guarantee in the Northwest Nine Conference is Mars having a solid rushing attack. Isaiah Johnson (1,316 yards, 21 TDs) and Garrett Reinke (964 yards, 9 TDs) both made first-team All-Conference last season at running back. Johnson has graduated, but Reinke returns as the feature back in his junior year.
The key to Mars success on both sides of the ball is winning in the trenches. Much of the success is from Anthony Grieco, who was all-conference on the offensive line and at linebacker last year. Grieco has registered over 100 tackles each of the past two seasons. He will hold down the fort for a Planets team with lots of holes to fill from graduation.
Mars coach Scott Heinauer is entering his 26th season as head coach of the Planets, and will look to make another trip to the postseason. After an 8-2 regular season in 2017, they fell to Ringgold 42-31 in the first round of the playoffs. Mars will travel to Hampton in Week Zero before a huge Week One battle at home against South Fayette.
Montour squeezed their way into the post season with a 4-4 conference record last year, but finished the season on a sour note. The Spartans lost four of their last five games, including a 35-0 loss to Thomas Jefferson in the playoffs. Expectations are high for Coach Lou Cerro’s squad to make a return to the postseason and beyond in 2017.
Quarterback Kavon Mormon and running back Brayden Jones lead a powerhouse offense for Montour. Jones ran for 563 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, while Mormon threw for just shy of 1,000 yards and ran for 450 more, accounting for 14 total touchdowns. Both Mormon and Jones, as well as wide receiver Ronnie Stevenson, have D1 college offers.
The Spartans defense will have to replace first-team All-Conference players in Rolman Macek and Cam Colliers. They will look to regroup after a 2016 season averaging 33 points allowed per game in their six losses. Montour travels north to New Castle in Week One to start their 2017 campaign.
NEW CASTLE RED HURRICANES
A magical 2016 season saw New Castle avenging regular season losses to South Fayette and Ringgold to make it to the WPIAL Championship Game. While the ‘Canes finished one game shy of the 4A title, momentum is high for Coach Joe Cowart’s squad, who has made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons.
Marcus Hooker lead the way offensively with 789 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns in 2016. The Ohio State commit is likely to line up full time at running back this year after spending time at both running back and receiver in 2016. The ‘Canes will have to replace quarterback Geno Stone, who led the team with 17 passing and 18 rushing touchdowns, as well as leading receiver Garrett Farah. Stone’s contributions in the secondary will also be missed, and New Castle will counter by moving Hooker defensively from linebacker to free safety to replace Stone.
The prolific offense from last year that averaged over 33 points per game could take a hit with Stone and Farah gone, but another major loss will be in running back Lorenzo Gardner, who rushed for 490 yards last year. Gardner is expected to miss his senior campaign after tearing his ACL back in May. Sophomore Daniel Minenok and freshman Donovan Crockett will have an open battle for the starting quarterback position.
New Castle travels to Aliquippa in Week Zero to kick off their 2017 campaign.
SOUTH FAYETTE LIONS
A perfect 10-0 regular season was thwarted with an upset in the first round of the playoffs, as South Fayette fell in a shootout 51-43 to New Castle. Coach Joe Rossi’s squad will be out for blood, and the Lions return a big part of their high-powered offense to do so.
Senior quarterback Drew Saxton has thrown for over 4,600 yards and 61 touchdowns over his two seasons as a starting quarterback. He will have plenty of weapons, starting with TE/WR and Delaware recruit Noah Plack. He had 679 yards and 10 touchdowns, leading all receivers on a Lions squad that averaged over 42 points per game last year.
Ray Eldridge, who is also receiving D1 offers, will look to lead the way in the trenches on both sides of the ball for South Fayette. The question of who he and his line mates will be blocking for is still in question, as 1,000 yard rusher Geavonie Love was lost to graduation.
The Lions travel to Central Valley in Week Zero.
MSA SPORTS PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH in NORTHWEST NINE:
1. South Fayette Lions
2. New Castle Red Hurricanes
3. Montour Spartans
4. Mars Fighting Planets
5. Blackhawk Cougars
6. Highlands Golden Rams
7. Knoch Knights
8. Indiana Little Indians
9. Ambridge Bridgers
Don Rebel hosts the Rebel Yell podcasts for HSSN.