CTK 2015 – Class A Eastern Conference Preview

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Thursday, August 27, 2015 | 11:15 PM


The landscape of the Eastern Conference changed drastically in 2014 as a result of realignment, as two strong AA teams, Greensburg Central Catholic and Jeannette, dropped down in classification. Those teams, combined with Clairton and Monessen, as well as historically successful Springdale, appeared to comprise perhaps the most top-loaded conference in the WPIAL.

When the season concluded, though, there was no competition for the conference champion. Last season will always be remembered for the sheer and utter dominance displayed by the Clairton Bears. The team posted some of the most lopsided victories in recent memory, and the Bears culminated their season with a WPIAL Championship.

As expected, newcomers Jeannette and Greensburg Central Catholic both made the postseason, and while the Jayhawks returned to elite status, the Centurions were less impressive than anticipated.

Also, the Greyhounds, the team that snapped Clairton’s incredible winning streak the previous season, fell out of the playoff picture altogether, as the Dynamos earned a trip to the postseason.

Riverview showed signs of life, especially later in the season, under a first-year head coach, and the Raiders could become another team that contends for a top-four spot this year.

For Leechburg, Wilkinsburg and Serra Catholic, contending was never a realistic outlook last season, and that trio of teams could all struggle again in 2015.

Here’s a look at the Class A Eastern Conference:

CLAIRTON BEARS:

The Bears not only dominated the Eastern Conference in 2014, they rewrote the record books en route to the WPIAL Class A title.

The team outscored its opponents 958-160 throughout the regular season and postseason, and unfathomably scored at least 70 points in each of their first five contests. Aside from a thrilling overtime contest against Neshannock in the WPIAL semifinals, the Bears were never tested until the PIAA title game, which they lost to Bishop Guilfoyle in the waning seconds, 19-18.

That loss may just fuel the fire in Clairton this season, though, as the team returns an array of incredible gifted playmakers.

At the top of that list is Lamont Wade, who set the all-time WPIAL rushing record in his sophomore campaign with 2,765 yards. The feat is even more impressive when considering that Wade was not even the feature back at the start of the season, as he was splitting carries with Harrison Dreher before the latter sustained an injury.

Perhaps even scarier for opponents, though, is that Wade’s skills may be more suited on the defensive side, as most scouting services project him as a cornerback at the college level. To that point, he recorded four interceptions in the Bears WPIAL Championship win over Avonworth. He could be the most prized recruit in Western Pennsylvania since Terrelle Pryor but the time his career at Clairton concludes.

Wade isn’t the only superstar and Division I talent for the Bears, though, as 6-foot-5 receiver Aaron Mathews also returns to the mix. Mathews, who played quarterback for the team two seasons ago, paced the Bears with 44 catches last year, and totaled nearly 800 yards receiving. He also was involved in the run game, as head coach Wayne Wade showed creativity to getting the ball in his hands.

Both Wade and Mathews could potentially take snaps at quarterback this season, as the team looks to replace prolific passing Ryan Williams. Williams, who threw for more than 3,000 and 40 touchdowns last season, will be a significant loss, as will wideout James Hines, who paced the Bears with 966 yards receiving. Raymone Clifford and Ju’Juan Jackson are other notable skill position losses for Clairton due to graduation, but the talent is in place for Clairton to be even better in 2015.

In addition to Wade and Mathews, the return of Dreher could be huge, as he figures to significantly add to his 2014 rushing numbers if he stays healthy. Moreover, Noah Hamlin could enjoy a breakout junior season at receiver, as he showed big-place ability in his limited chances last year. Sophomores Bryson Koontz and Corey Johnson could also see addition playing time.

Similar to their offensive, the Bears’ defense is predicated on speed, and it figures to be suffocating again in 2015.

One of the few question marks for Clairton remains special teams, however. The Bears almost always elected to attempt two-point conversions following their frequent scores last season, and the lack of a competent kicker loomed large as the team did not attempt a potential winning field goal in the final minutes against Bishop Guilfoyle.

GREENSBURG CENTRAL CATHOLIC CENTURIONS:

When it was announced that the Greensburg Central Catholic football team, a perennial powerhouse in Class AA, was dropping to the A classification for the 2014-15 season, many expected the Centurions to return to title contention.

That didn’t happen, though, as Greensburg Central Catholic sputtered down the stretch to a fourth-place finish and opening-round playoff exit. The Centurions lost lopsided contests to Clairton and Jeannette, and also were upended by Springdale.

One of the biggest positives from last season, though, was the invaluable experience gained by the junior-heavy class. With a roster now comprised of 16 senior letter winners, including 11 starters, the Centurions should be a much-improved squad.

Fifth-year coach Dan Mahoney introduced several changes during the offseason, including a shift to a spread offense that should allow quarterback Tommy Pellis to utilize more weapons. Pellis, entering his third year as a starter for the team, appears ready for the added responsibility.

Last season, the passing attack was mediocre at times for GCC, as evidenced by Pellis’ statistics. He completed just 48 of his 118 passing attempts, and threw eight interceptions to just three touchdowns.

Frequently in 2014, JP Pellis, Tommy’s cousin, was the lone receiving option on a play, and defenses began to stack eight defenders in the box to limit the Centurions’ rushing game. Receivers Sam Nowicki and Ryan Quinn, as well as tight end Jake Weir, all could factor into the expanded passing attack this campaign.

The GCC offense will benefit from the return of running back Brian Pevarnik, as well. Pevarnik was injured in the second week of the season and was not at full strength upon his return. He still led the team in rushing, though, with more than 600 yards. This year, he and Alvin Ross should see the bulk of the carries, although Ross may also see extensive action in the slot.

The offensive line returns four starters, including Tom Slavic, Jack Kilkeary, Nick Rullo and Zach Skatell.

On the defensive side, Slavic, Kilkeary and Jassan Eubank will anchor the line, while Weir could be the leader of the linebacker unit after earning all-conference honors.

Riley Slike, who doubles as a soccer player at Greensburg Central Catholic, should provide a boost to the GCC special teams as a strong-legged kicker and punter.

JEANNETTE JAYHAWKS:

After a disappointing 2013 that saw the Jayhawks miss the playoffs in Class AA, Jeannette bounced back in a big way in its first season in Class A. Jeannette lost just two games, to Clairton in the regular season, and to Neshannock in a playoff shootout.

The team lost some notable talent, though, as quarterback Julian Batts and running backs Terrell Canady and Zack Altieri have all graduated.

Batts, who was one of the top basketball players in the area, as well, passed for 815 yards and 13 touchdowns, and rushed for 827 yards.

Gio Vanne Sanders figures to take over that spot after he rushed for nearly 300 yards on 30 carries last season.

Kareem Hall, now a junior, could develop into the go-to option in 2015 for the Jayhawks, after he finished second behind Batts in rushing yards last year. Swade Redman, a diminutive receiver, also could be a factor for the Jeannette offense.

Jeannette returns eight letter winners on the offensive line, including seniors Jimmy Malik, Hassani Stikkel, Hakiem Stikkel and Bobby Horn.

Sanders, an all-conference performer as a defensive back, will be one of the key cogs in the Jayhawks’ defense under head coach Roy Hall.

LEECHBURG BLUE DEVILS:

The Leechburg Blue Devils endured another tough season in 2014, but there were some reasons for optimism.

Most notably, the team scored two impressive victories: a 61-25 blowout of Serra Catholic, and a shocking early-season upset of Springdale, which qualified for the playoffs. Also, quarterback J.B. Burtick gained plenty of experience during his sophomore campaign, which should pay dividends during this season.

Burtick, who threw for more than 550 yards, lost his top receiver, Jeff Holmes, to graduation, however. In fact, Holmes was one of 13 seniors who graduated, and the current senior class for the Blue Devils is much smaller.

2015 could be a rebuilding year for head coach Mark George, as he tries to guide the Blue Devils to become a contender in a competitive section.

MONESSEN GREYHOUNDS:

Monessen experienced a significant regression in 2014, as the Greyhounds surprisingly finished fifth in the section, and missed the postseason.

Following the season, the WPIAL Board of Directors ordered the team’s four wins vacated after it was discovered that Monessen used a pair of players who did not have eligibility remaining.

Although 2014 was disappointing both on and off-the-field for Monessen, the Greyhounds now boast a new coach who brings a championship pedigree. Joey Salvino, the current Monessen basketball coach who guided his team to a WPIAL Championship this past season, is now at the helm for the football program, as well.

One of Salvino’s first changes was moving running back Lavalle Rush to quarterback, where he will replace the graduated Noah Rullo. Rush could also seem time at receiver, a position where he hauled in 15 passes for more than 300 yards last season.

Running back Demond Jordan also returns for the Greyhounds after pacing the team on the ground last year. A pair of junior receivers, Jaden Altomore and Jaron Youngblood, will also be key to the team’s success.

Receiver Lyndon Henderson and fullback Vaughn Taylor are two newcomers who could make an impact, according to Salvino.

A trio of talented offensive lineman, Nate Ciepley, Marc Gibson and Zachary Baker, return to anchor the unit.

RIVERVIEW RAIDERS:

The Raiders showed progress under head coach Jason Cappa in his first season at Riverview, and after a loss to Monessen was reversed due to a player-eligibility violation following the season, the Raiders actually finished with a winning record.

One of Cappa’s biggest contributions in his first year was his focus on improving player development.  He saw signs of increased stamina last season, which helped his team stay in many games down the stretch, and Cappa believes his team will be much quicker this year.

The Raiders’ offense will offer a new look this season, as Jake Hanus takes over for Tyler Nigro. While Hanus will not likely match the scrambling ability of his predecessor, his prowess as a passer will allow the Raiders to expand their passing game.

Receivers Shayne Slebrich and Jesse Demko could be the biggest beneficiaries of Hanus’ throws, and tight end Joe Ford could become a primary target, as well.

While running back Ray Robair is gone, Nasan Tibbens returns, and he’ll serve as the featured back. Tibbens also has the ability to provide another target for Hanus out of the backfield. Juniors Brandon Davis and Ryan Broadwater, both starters at linebacker, could provide a boost in the running game this season, too.

The unit responsible for providing running room for those players, the offensive line, returns three starters in center Vince Fiore, guard Paul Knapp and tackle Will Singleton. Although Singleton has not been present during training camp, he’s been away at boot camp, which should help prepare him physically and mentally for the season.

Riverview’s defense, which utilizes a base 4-4 alignment, will attempt to outnumber the opposing offense by having more guys in the box. Playing against explosive offenses, the Raiders will need to limit their mistakes, Cappa says.

Cappa’s son, Jake, will serve as the team’s punter, while Slebrich will handle kickoff duties. The team is still holding a competition to determine who will kick field goals and extra points this year.

SERRA CATHOLIC EAGLES:

Serra Catholic’s only win in 2014 came in the Eagles’ season finale, as they knocked off Wilkinsburg, 38-36. The Eagles also scored a season-high 43 points in a one-point loss to West Greene, but in between, Serra Catholic was held scoreless in three-straight contests.

Much of that futility on offense can be attributed to injuries to Jason Cerniglia and Zac Quattrone. While Quattrone, along with standout wide receiver Joe Satira have both graduated, Cerniglia returns, and appears to be better than ever.

The senior signal caller, who passed for more than 1,100 yards and rushed for another 400 yards last campaign, has rehabbed his shoulder ailment, and has gotten in much better shape in the process. He also understands the Eagles’ offensive concepts better this year, according to head coach Tony St. Angelo.

Cerniglia has a slew of receiving options, including Jordan Pulkownik, who also led the team in rushing, as well as Joey Houston and Nathan McCullough.

SPRINGDALE DYNAMOS:

After a disappointing early season loss to Leechburg, Springdale turned around its season and used a four-game winning streak to finish third in the section. In the process, the Dynamos scored a pair of upset victories over Greensburg Central Catholic and Monessen, both by scores of 14-12.

This season, Springdale will likely depend on its size and strength, as well as its experience up front in the Dynamos attempt to return to the postseason.

Seven starters are back on offense for head coach Dave Leasure, including all five players on the offensive line. Jake Shrader and Zak Igo anchor the tackle spots, while all-conference selection Dante Mahlmeister and Dom Varatto will serve as guards. Center Collin McClaine returns, as well, after he missed most of 2014 with a knee injury.

Similarly, standout tight end Eric Lovic returns after leading the Dynamos in receiving yards last campaign.

Junior Sammy Carey takes over at quarterback, and although his statistics were minimal last season, Carey did start four games as a freshman in 2013.

Carey’s receiving corps will be relatively inexperienced, however, as the trio of Andy Armour, Kodie Marchek and Damian Brand will all see a significant increase in their snaps.

Likewise, the Dynamos will call upon several players to try to fill the void left by running back Austin Kline, who notched more than 750 yards on the ground in 2014. In addition to returning starting halfback Joel Wunnenberg, Ethan McFarlane should be a big piece of the Springdale attack after he missed the majority of last year with injury.

Sophomore running back Josh Harmon could provide some explosive to the rushing attack, while Ben Sowinski takes over at fullback.

Defensively, Lovic will lead the way after he recorded more than 100 tackles at inside linebacker last campaign. He will be joined at the position by Wunnenberg and Sowinski, while Mahlmeister and Shrader anchor the defensive line.

McFarland and Harmon will both see considerable playing time on defense, as well, and they have the talent to become impact players.

Much like last season, the Dynamos will need to dictate the pace of games and use their superior size and strength to compensate for their relative lack of speed.

WILKINSBURG TIGERS:

Last season, Wilkinsburg celebrated the 100-year anniversary of winning the first ever WPIAL football title. This season could potentially be the last for the school’s football team, as the future of the district remains in doubt.

If the end is near though, the Tigers and head coach Mike Fulmore want to go out with a memorable season to make the past teams and the community proud.

Perhaps no team faced more adversity last year, as the Tigers had only 15 players remaining after several members quit during an 86-0 rout at the hands of the Clairton Bears in week two.

While the team’s lone victory came in a 24-14 triumph against Leechburg in the opening game of the campaign, just finishing the season was an accomplishment in itself.

Quarterback Jonathan Carpenter, who turned in an impressive season in which he passed for more than 1,400 yards, has graduated. Replacing him will be Dremar Everette, who shifts from the tight end position.

Everette will have a talented target in receiver Xavier Reed, who led the team in receptions and receiving yards by a significant margin last year. Fellow receiver Genaro Coleman, fullback Bryan Mullen, and lineman Dimitrius Gray are among the top returners to the Tigers’ lineup.

Defensively, Stephon Byrd returns from offseason groin surgery, and will be expected to lead Wilkinsburg. Last year, he earned all-conference honors in pacing the team in tackles.

With such a small roster, almost all of the players must play both ways for the majority of the contest, so the Tigers are always in jeopardy of wearing down as games and the season progress.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH FOR THE EASTERN CONFERENCE:

1.      Clairton Bears

2.      Greensburg Central Catholic Centurions

3.      Jeannette Jayhawks

4.      Monessen Greyhounds

5.      Springdale Dynamos

6.      Riverview Raiders

7.      Wilkinsburg Tigers

8.      Serra Catholic Eagles

9.      Leechburg Blue Devils

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