CTK 2015 – Class AAAA Foothills Conference Preview

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015 | 10:56 PM


The Foothills Conference hasn’t had a repeat champion since Gateway in 2008-09. The trend may end this season.

The Foothills is alive with Warriors. The Penn-Trafford Warriors. Coach John Ruane’s team made it to the WPIAL semifinals last year and many are pointing to the Warriors as the favorite to win their second consecutive conference title. Penn-Trafford has experience, skill and some size.

McKeesport looks like Penn-Trafford’s top competitor. Plum’s program could continue to move upward under fourth-year coach Matt Morgan. The Mustangs have some key players back from last year’s team that finished 6-5 and won a playoff game.

After Penn-Trafford, McKeesport and Plum, things look pretty open in the Foothills. Here’s a look at the teams in the conference:

ALTOONA MOUNTAIN LIONS:

The Lions had a successful 2014 season, winning a playoff game for the first time since rejoining the WPIAL in 2010. But graduation hit coach John Franco’s team hard and many of the top players are gone. Defensive end-fullback Kevin Givens is at Penn State. Talented running back Eli Mencer graduated.

Thus, there are many holes to fill. The season will depend on how fast the inexperienced players develop at the key positions. Jason Russo is the top returning rusher from last year, but he gained only 164 yards on 29 carries.

We will get an early indication of how good Altoona really is. Three of the Lions’ first four games are against McKeesport, Plum and Penn-Trafford.

CONNELLSVILLE FALCONS:

The Falcons snuck in the playoffs last year as the sixth-place “wild-card” team. Connellsville finished 3-7 and coach Dave McDonald’s team will most likely battle for one of the final playoff spots again this season.

Connellsville will probably rely on its running game. The Falcons had six players with 33 or more carries last season. Braden Hone is back after leading the team in rushing with 354 yards on 44 attempts. The offense needs to improve, though, after averaging only 14 points a game last season.

On defense, Steve White returns after making second-team all-conference at defensive back.

HEMPFIELD SPARTANS:

The Spartans will try to bounce back from a disappointing 2014 season. After making the playoffs two consecutive seasons, coach Rich Bowen’s team dropped to 3-6 last season, finished in seventh place in the conference and did not make the playoffs.

Hempfield’s offense could carry the team to more than three wins this season. Daniel Walters returns at quarterback after a fine 2014 season. He completed 114 of 192 for 1,371 yards and also rushed for 492 yards on 119 carries.

Walters showed plenty of promise last season, but so did freshman Justin Sliwoski, who filled in for an injured Walters in the final game of the season. Sliwoski threw for 301 yards in a Hempfield win.

Also returning is running back Don Washington, who rushed for 470 yards on 78 attempts. Receiver Dylan Sikora caught 25 passes for 375 yards.

KISKI AREA CAVALIERS:

It can’t get any worse for Kiski Area than last year, when the Cavaliers finished 0-9. Things are looking a little better this season as Kiski Area fights to get out of the Foothills basement.

There were problems offensively and defensively a year ago as Kiski Area was outscored, 429-81. You’d think the offense would have to be better, just because of the experienced players returning. Chad Kuhn is back at quarterback after completing 80 of 155 for 968 yards.

Lincoln Clayton has showed promise ever since he opened some eyes as a freshman three years ago. Clayton is now a senior and hoping to finally live up to that promise. He rushed for 310 yards on 64 carries a year ago.

Justice Evans would’ve also been in the backfield after rushing for 203 yards on 53 carries last season. But Evans transferred to Central Catholic. The WPIAL and PIAA ruled him ineligible to play at Central, saying he transferred for athletic intent.

Also back for Kiski Area are receivers Deshawon Bracy and Cam Turner, who caught 21 and 18 passes, respectively.

One of the top defensive players should be linebacker Noah Clayton.

LATROBE WILDCATS:

It has been six years since Latrobe last made the WPIAL playoffs. The Wildcats will have to fight and scratch their way into one of the last spots this year.

Second-year coach Jason Marucco is coming off a 1-8 season. The Wildcats will probably build around returning quarterback Craig Stevens, who completed 50 of 101 for 520 yards last season, and also rushed for 250 yards on 118 carries.

Austin Butler played some at quarterback last season also and Latrobe will probably try to find ways to get him involved. He was a top basketball player for Latrobe.

Tyler Gustafson returns at receiver and Ian Hood is a top lineman.

McKEESPORT TIGERS:

The Tigers finished second in the Foothills last year, and 10-2 overall. The losses were to Penn-Trafford in the regular season and Pine-Richland in the WPIAL semifinals.

Coach George Smith will have the flexbone offense in full gear again, and some of the main cogs in the offense return. Khaleke Hudson is one of the top players in the WPIAL, a standout on both offense and defense. He was fifth in the WPIAL in regular-season rushing last season and also is an excellent strong safety. Hudson rushed for 1,644 yards on 179 attempts last season and scored 26 touchdowns. He has more than a dozen scholarship offers from Division I colleges, and Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia are three of his top choices.

Tymar Sutton is back at quarterback. He also is an excellent linebacker and has a few Division I scholarship offers for defense. On offense, Sutton rushed for 806 yards on 98 carries. Mark Cromerdie also returns after rushing for 555.

Lyle Petrosky (6-4, 250) figures to be one of the top linemen in the conference and Davon Brown is another lineman to watch.

NORWIN KNIGHTS:

The Knights finished 5-5 last year and in fifth place in the conference with a 4-4 mark. Their return to the playoffs was short and not so sweet though as they fell to Pittsburgh Central Catholic 42-7 in Round One. Things are looking up again for Norwin this season as the Knights seemingly have enough to return to the postseason.

Nick Amendola figures to be one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. A year ago, he completed 61 of 118 for 862 yards and rushed for 311 on 93 attempts. And don’t forget he was also a first-team all-conference linebacker. Norwin’s running game also has potential with Peyton Deri, who rushed for 620 yards on 109 carries.

On the line, Tyler Gray was a second-team all-conference pick last year while Steve Petrick was a second-team all-conference tight end.

PENN-TRAFFORD WARRIORS:

Coach John Ruane has built this program into one that now seems to be good every season. The Warriors will certainly miss running back Devin Austin, a 1,000-yard rusher last year who graduated. But Penn-Trafford has talent and experience at many positions.

Receiver-defensive back Tim Vecchio made the Post-Gazette Fabulous 22 a year ago. He recently accepted a scholarship to play at Robert Morris. Vecchio caught 43 passes for 1,022 yards last season. He was the favorite target of quarterback Brett Laffoon, who returns after an outstanding junior season. Laffoon completed 106 of 160 for 2,005 yards and 26 touchdowns a year ago. He also rushed for 409 yards on 60 attempts.

With the graduation of Austin, Jonah Lisbon looks to be the featured runner. He rushed for 524 yards on 72 attempts. Lisbon also was a first-team all-conference defensive back.

A few key players on the lines graduated, but some key players also return. Chris Stanford and Andre Guest have size and talent.

PLUM MUSTANGS:

After some dismal years, Matt Morgan has brought back optimism to Plum.

After finishing fourth in the conference last year, there is reason to believe the Mustangs can climb another notch. Why? Well, eight starters return on offense and six on defense.

Leading rusher Nathan Turchick graduated, but Nick Coxon and Kevin Brown return. Coxon rushed for 433 yards on 90 carries and Brown 361 on 43 attempts. At receiver, Ashton Teeter caught 23 passes and Pat Crossey 22.

 But there is talent and experience on the lines also. Zach Nolan was a first-team all-conference tight end and Eric Trenz a first-team lineman. And don’t forget about kicker Jake Chapla, who also was first-team all-conference.

Other returning starters are lineman Jake Tecak, lineman Mike Simboli, receiver-defensive back Jason Hubner and fullback-linebacker Dylan Whiteman.

A key will be how well sophomore quarterback Corey Thomas develops.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH IN THE FOOTHILLS CONFERENCE:

1.      Penn-Trafford Warriors

2.      McKeesport Tigers

3.      Plum Mustangs

4.      Norwin Knights

5.      Hempfield Spartans

6.      Altoona Mountain Lions

7.      Latrobe Wildcats

8.      Kiski Area Cavaliers

9.      Connellsville Falcons

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