CTK 2011 – WPIAL AAA BIG EIGHT Conference Preview

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Saturday, August 20, 2011 | 11:25 PM


Discussions about the race for the conference crown in the Big Eight usually start and end with the big one. Thomas Jefferson.

Ten of the past 11 years, Thomas Jefferson has won the conference. For five years in a row, Thomas Jefferson has not lost a conference game and has a 31-game conference winning streak. Eight of the past nine seasons Thomas Jefferson has finished undefeated in conference play.

When the leaves start turning brown this fall, there will be another tradition in Western Pennsylvania. Thomas Jefferson will win the Big Eight again. At least that’s what most of the coaches in the conference believe as Thomas Jefferson is once again the favorite. A few coaches call the Jaguars a heavy favorite.

After Thomas Jefferson, it looks like a tough battle for second among a few teams. Chartiers Valley is one of the best after TJ and could maybe challenge TJ this year.

A year ago, Thomas Jefferson, Trinity, Belle Vernon and West Mifflin were the playoff teams from the conference. As for the conference makeup, this is the second year in a row Ringgold won’t be in the conference. The Rams are in the Keystone.

Here is a look at the Class AAA Big Eight Conference:

BELLE VERNON LEOPARDS:

Aaron Krepps has guided the Leopards to the WPIAL playoffs in each of his first two seasons as coach. Although Belle Vernon figures to be in the thick of the playoff race again, graduation hit the team hard in some key spots.

Finding a feature running back to replace Matt Green won’t be easy. Nick Gruber did well last year when Green was out for part of the season with an injured ankle, but Gruber also has graduated. On top of that, Matt Naylor has graduated. He was the first-team all-conference quarterback a year ago. Some top linemen also have graduated.

Belle Vernon, though, does return senior fullback Adam Cole. Also, Ian Dobbins was a first-team all-conference receiver a year ago. Jake Buritz also is back at receiver.

This team might have to rely heavily on its defense this season. A year ago, the Leopards had a stingy defense, at least in conference play. They allowed only 76 points in conference games, second-best in the conference. Cole will be the heart and soul of the defense. He was a first-team all-conference linebacker a year ago. Dobbins also is a talented defensive back.

CHARTIERS VALLEY COLTS:

Rebound is the word at Chartiers Valley this season, and we’re not talking about the Colts’ fine basketball program. Chartiers Valley will try to rebound from a 4-6 season in 2010. The Colts also missed the playoffs, breaking a seven-year streak of postseason appearances.

The most noteworthy change with the Colts this season is that Wayne Capers isn’t playing quarterback. He was the starting QB the past two seasons, although he only played one game last year because of a torn ACL, and missed half of his sophomore season with a broken foot.

Capers, who is being recruited by Division I colleges, is playing slotback this season. Receiver is the position he will play in college. That means either seniors Christian Kuntz or A.J. Mazzarini, or junior Jordan Joseph will be the Colts’ quarterback.

Coach Chris Saluga has one of the conference’s best linemen in center Niko Mamula, who was first-team all-conference a year ago. Guard Mitch Zajicek also is a returning starter. Kuntz can play receiver if he’s not the quarterback, and Kevin Gillen returns at slotback.

On defense, Chartiers Valley is set at linebacker with Joe Ragni and Kuntz. Mamula plays defensive tackle and the other two returning starters on defense are defensive backs Marco Schubert and Mazzarini.

ELIZABETH FORWARD WARRIORS:

He’s back.

Mike LeDonne is back at Elizabeth Forward for his second time around. LeDonne also coached Elizabeth Forward from 2000-02, and his 2000 team made the playoffs and advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals. LeDonne takes over a team that was 0-9 a year ago. But the Warriors won four and five games in the previous two seasons.

Elizabeth Forward has four starters returning on offense and five on defense. The Warriors must improve on both sides of the ball, as they averaged only eight points a game last season and gave up 30 a game.

Five seniors are returning starters. They are receiver-defensive back Nick Fekula, lineman Shawn emery, receiver-defensive back Bryce Leach, tight end-defensive end Mason Totorice and lineman Griffith Trainor.

The other returning starters are juniors – fullback-linebacker Rex Pearce, running back-defensive back Tyler Smith and lineman Adam Oatman.

McGUFFEY HIGHLANDERS:

After finding some success in Class AA of the WPIAL, making the playoffs in 2008 and ’09, McGuffey had to move up to Class AAA last season. It was not a pleasant move. The Highlanders finished 2-7 and 1-6 in conference.

The biggest problem for the Highlanders last year was scoring. They averaged only nine points a game. It doesn’t bode well that McGuffey’s top offensive player also graduated. Derrick Whipkey was the team’s starting quarterback last season, but also led the team in rushing with 902 yards.

Senior running back Keith Cox is a player who might play more of a significant role in coach Derek Bochna’s offense without Whipkey. Also, tackle Ryan Schilinski was a second-team all-conference selection a year ago.

SOUTH PARK EAGLES:

Like McGuffey, South Park was a team that moved up from Class AA to AAA last season. South Park hadn’t made the playoffs four years in a row in Class AA, and finished last season with a 3-6 record, 3-4 in conference. The Eagles did finish the season on a high note, though, winning two of their final three, including a 16-0 defeat of Chartiers Valley in the regular-season finale.

Venerable coach Tom Loughran has a seasoned quarterback to lead this year, even if he is only a junior. Nick Yobbi saw some action two years ago as a freshman and started last year. The Eagles might rely heavily on him.

Also back is Cody Stolar, who was a second-team all-conference defensive back, and linebacker Zach May.

THOMAS JEFFERSON JAGUARS:

Thomas Jefferson lost some key linemen to graduation. If the Jaguars find capable replacements, this could be another very good year for the Jaguars.

Coach Bill Cherpak has one of the best running backs in Class AAA in senior Ryan Ruffing, who rushed for 861 yards on 138 carries last season. Also back is athletic quarterback Dom Presto, who split time last year with Ryan Crouse. But Crouse has graduated, which means Presto will have the load completely on his shoulders this season. Presto showed plenty of promise last season, completing 46 of 87 passes for 886 yards and rushing for 133 yards on 36 carries.

Also on offense, Nick Raimondi is back after catching 14 passes a year ago. Bruno Natter was a second-team all-conference tight end. Mike Terpin was honorable mention all-conference at receiver.

On defense, Bruno Natter returns at linebacker after leading the team in tackles a year ago. Zach Schademan is a defensive back worth watching.

TRINITY HILLERS:

Trinity’s players staged a “sit-in” the first day of practice to protest coaching cuts made by the school board. By the end of the regular season, those same players hope to be sitting near the top of the conference standings. Trinity finished in a tie for second place in the conference a year ago, and the Hillers have made the playoffs six years in a row, including all five seasons in Class AAA.

Trinity features Patrick Frey, who just might be one of the top sophomore running backs in the WPIAL. He showed plenty of promise as a freshman last year. Ty Yocca also returns in the backfield. Frey and Yocca are two of the main reasons Trinity is trying the triple option offense this season.

But the offensive line could be a question mark ias Derrick Bedenbaugh is the only returning starter. The quarterback position will be handled by either Jason Vankirk or John Laschinsky. Also, coach Ed Dalton believes fullback Brandon Robertson is capable of some big things.

Robertson, who plays linebacker, is one of five returning starters on defense. The other are nose tackle Evan Gallagher, tackle Xavier Severns, linebacker Taylor Davidson and defensive back Corey Hunsberger. Dalton believes Severns, a junior, is a future Division I college prospect.

WEST MIFFLIN TITANS:

After missing the playoffs four consecutive years, the Titans got back into the postseason last year as the No. 4 team in the conference. They are hoping for even bigger things this season.

Ray Braszo is in his second season of his second tenure at West Mifflin, and he has some offensive weapons that should make the Titans fun to watch. Senior running back Shamar Greene was the 12th-leading rusher in the WPIAL last regular season with 1,176 yards on 212 carries. Greene was a first-team all-conference selection.

Also back is senior quarterback Jordan McClung, who completed 46 of 114 for 815 yards in 2010. Demetrius Hayes returns at receiver.

Lineman Tyree Atkinson and linebacker Kevin Clarke also could have big seasons after showing promise as juniors.

Add it all up and West Mifflin might be Thomas Jefferson’s biggest challenge for the conference title.

MSA SPORTS PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. THOMAS JEFFERSON JAGUARS

2. WEST MIFFLIN TITANS

3. CHARTIERS VALLEY COLTS

4. TRINITY HILLERS

5. BELLE VERNON LEOPARDS

6. SOUTH PARK EAGLES

7. McGUFFEY HIGHLANDERS

8. ELIZABETH FORWARD WARRIORS

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