CTK 2015 – Class AAAA Southeastern Conference Preview

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015 | 7:25 PM


After what happened in 2014, maybe there should be some consideration given to changing the WPIAL Class AAAA eight-team conference known as the Southeastern Conference with six schools south of the city of Pittsburgh and two in the eastern suburbs to the Eastsouthern Conference. The two east schools were beast a year ago after Penn Hills Week 9 upset of highly ranked rival Woodland Hills left the Indians and Wolverines as conference co-champs with 6-1 section records.

While the same named SEC in the college ranks has been called the strongest in the nation, the same can not be said about the District 7 version. While teams from the Southeastern Conference won three WPIAL championships in a four year span from 2005 to 2008, it has hit a postseason drought since.

The recent collective struggles were evidenced again by the postseason record for the five Southeastern Conference playoff teams last season. The combination of Penn Hills, Woodland Hills, Bethel Park, Mount Lebanon and Upper St. Clair went a combined 1-5 in the district playoff last fall.

There is optimism that could change here in 2015 with high expectations for a couple of the conference teams heading into a new campaign.

Here is a preview of the Southeastern Conference:

BALDWIN HIGHLANDERS:

Baldwin has only made the WPIAL playoffs once thus far this decade. That happened in Pete Wagner first season as head coach of the Highlanders in 2013. After just missing the wild card and a postseason berth a year ago, Wagner hopes the pendulum is swinging back to the playoffs for the purple and white. 

The Highlanders hopes will hinge in part on the transition of senior starting quarterback Brandon Scheicher, who was the team’s second leading receiver a year ago with 30 catches for nearly 400 yards. Schleicher takes over for the graduated Doug Altavilla, who threw for over 1,900 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2014.

While Doug has graduated, the other part of the Altavilla family hook-up was 2014 leading receiver Nick Altavilla. He had 45 catches for 726 yards and seven touchdowns for Baldwin. Other offensive weapons include wide receiver Vince Persichetti and running back Nick Lachut.

Senior Brendan Badstibner will help anchor the offensive and defensive lines along with senior Zach Brown and junior Artie Priore up front. Senior linebackers C.J. Hueber, Mike Sealy and defensive back Phil Harding will be keys on defense with high hopes for linebacker Jordan Allridge and defensive back Jauntay Moran.   

Coach Wagner likes what he sees on defense with what he calls a good balance of experience and some newcomers battling for jobs on a unit that yielded 217 points during a five game losing streak last year.

BETHEL PARK BLACK HAWKS:

The Levi Metheny era at Bethel Park has one more chapter left to be written and fans of the black and orange are hoping it is a lengthy and successful read when all is said and done. The senior son of veteran coach Jeff Metheny prepares for his fourth and final year at quarterback where he had guided the Black Hawks to three straight playoff trips.

However the Hawks are 1-3 in those postseason trips, including a surprising 27-17 loss to Altoona in Round One last year. That capped off a 6-4 season which included wins over rivals Baldwin, Peters Township and Upper St. Clair as well as a Week 7 triumph over eventual conference co-champion Penn Hills 31-28.

Levi Metheny hit on 92 of 161 yards passing for 1,156 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also was fourth on the team in rushing with just under 100 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns. Leading rusher Alex Minton has graduated, leaving junior Terron Murphy as the possible go to guy in the backfield. Murphy was second on the team last year as a sophomore with 275 yards on only 23 carries and three touchdowns. Senior Devin Andres and sophomore John Doleno are also expected to help with the running game. After dominating his junior year on the court in both basketball and volleyball, senior receiver Jake Dixon will be a big target after a 13.3 yards per reception average a year ago.

The Black Hawks have some experience up front on both sides of the ball with seniors Chris Pauley, Sean Davis, Josh Sosnak, Marc Dunlap and sophomore James Gmiter all back after contributing to some extent last fall.

CANON-McMILLAN BIG MACS:

To say the Canon-McMillan football program has struggled this decade would be a large understatement. The Big Macs completed winless season and another last place campaign with an 0-7 conference record and 0-9 overall mark. It is the second winless season in four years and leaves the not so Big Macs with an overall record of 3-43 since 2010.

While it was seven years ago since Canon-McMillan last had a winning football program and a taste of postseason play, there is some optimism as new head coach Mike Evans and his staff take over as the third C-M head coach in less than a year. The Big Macs lost by at least three touchdowns in all but one of their first seven games, but hope to carry some momentum of season ending competitive loses to Baldwin (28-21) and Blackhawk (21-13) into this fall.

There is plenty of experience back at the skilled position for the blue and gold including senior quarterback Domenic Eannace, who led the team with nearly 500 yards passing and five touchdown tosses. Senior Jordan Smith completed 7 of 21 passes last year but will likely be the top target this year after finishing second on the team with 9 catches for 150 yards for a robust 16.7 yard average and five touchdowns. Senior Ahmed Morris-Walker had eight receptions a year ago for nearly nine yards a catch.

On the ground, the Big Macs have both of their leading rushers back from 2014. Junior Bryan Milligan led the team on the ground with 442 yards on 93 carries and three touchdowns. Fellow 11th-grader Brennan Handyside chipped in with 390 yards on 93 carries.

The defensive unit must really improve though for the Big Macs to be a factor in a fight to return to the playoffs. The Canon-McMillan defense allowed a conference high 308 points in 2014.

MOUNT LEBANON BLUE DEVILS:

After a RARE miss of the WPIAL playoffs in 2013, Mount Lebanon was able to bounce back under fourth year coach Mike Melnyk and return to the playoffs as the fourth place team in the Southeastern Conference. It looked like the Blue Devils were poised for a run at the conference title after a 30-22 win over Bethel Park improved their record to 5-1. However they ended the season with four consecutive losses, including a 35-10 season ending loss to McKeesport in Round One of the WPIAL playoffs.

Much like the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are high expectations on offense with the return of ten starters, including quarterback Eddie Jenkins. The three-sport standout and three year starter under center returns after a big season last year in which he finished seventh in all of Quad-A in passing connecting on 104 of 187 throws for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also was the team’s second leading rusher with 614 yards on 135 carries and 8 touchdowns.

Among his targets this year will be 2014 leading receiver Nick Tommasi (47 for 611), senior wide out Patrick Kimball and junior receiver Jack Young. Mount Lebanon will need to replace graduated leading rusher from a year ago in Joey Stabile. Junior David Harvey is the odds on favorite to take over as the lead back. He was the Devils third leading rusher last year with 339 yards on only 51 carries.

While the pigskin carrier is a question mark, the big boys up front is pretty solid with the return of senior OT/DE and three year starter and Villanova recruit Paul Grattan, junior center Ian Walsh, junior guard Chris Lippert, junior tackle Ken Schrader, senior OG/DT Ashlie Pusateri and senior DT Hunter Cazin.  

Only five starters return on defense with three up front (Pusateri, Cazin & Grattan) along with Harvey at LB and Tommasi at DB. The Blue Devils will rely on newcomers such as senior linebackers David Aul and Tommy Gramm along with senior Tyler Qua-Dao and junior defensive backs Edgar Parrilla, Tucker Donati, and Beau Greenwood.  

PENN HILLS INDIANS:

How do you follow a break out season? That is the question 4th year coach John Peterman hopes will be answered with not only another strong regular season, but also with postseason success.

2014 was a mixed bag for Penn Hills fans. The regular season ended with a 22-15 stunner over arch-rival and highly ranked Woodland Hills in Week 9, giving the Indians a share of the conference title, their first in six years. However the sweet win at The Wolvarena in Week 9 did not carry over to Week 10 as Penn Hills was upset by Plum in Round One of the WPIAL Quad-A playoffs.

One of the top players in the district returns to lead the Indians in Billy Kisner. Now entering his third year as the starting quarterback, Kisner has hit on 57 of 138 passes for 925 yards in his two previous years under center, doing damage with his legs as well as his arm. ‘Billy the Kid’ has rushed for 2,210 yards on 302 carries in 2013 and 2014. Kisner will likely play receiver or possibly defensive back in college. He already has made a verbal commitment to the University of Toledo.

Senior Henton Mathis, another player who has taken snaps under center as a quarterback will be relied on in the running game. He was third in rushing for the Indians a year ago behind Kisner and the graduated Te’Shan Campbell with 578 yards on the ground with a lofty 13.4 yard average per carry.

While Penn Hills relies on a strong running attack with few attempts through the air, the team leader in receptions a year ago returns in junior Frederick Squires, who enjoyed a sensational sophomore season with 8 catches for 86 yards.

The Indians will be searching for a replacement for one of the top kickers in the classification with the graduation of Nate Ferraco (3 FG, 40 PAT’s)  for an offense that was fifth in Quad-A scoring. However the defense needs to improve on a middle of the road 11th overall finish out of 25 teams in points allowed.

PETERS TOWNSHIP INDIANS:

While Rich Piccinni is only entering his fifth season as head football coach at Peters Township, he has already become one of the most successful coaches in school history. His four year record is a modest 16-23, including a struggling 2-7 last year, however his three year playoff run from 2011 to 2013 was the longest postseason streak in school history and those three postseason trips ties him with Garry Cathell for most in school history. A return to the playoffs this fall would put him alone at the top of that list.

It won’t be easy though for the Indians as they need to replace both their leading passer (Cory Owen) and receiver (Tim Swoope) and leading tackler (Jake Scott) from a year ago.

The battle for the starting quarterback spot will be between a pair of juniors in Blake Smith and Jake Cortes. The good news for whoever starts under center will be that the team’s leading rusher from last year returns in junior T.J. Kpan, who gained 510 yards on 97 carries with six touchdowns. Top targets in the passing game will be senior wide receiver Clayton Yeates, junior wide out Alan Snyder and senior tight end Conor Manning.

There is plenty of experience in the trenches on both sides of the ball for the Indians. Among the starting lineman back are seniors Jake Reardon (who broke the school record with 410-pound bench), Mike Wright, Bobby Webster and juniors Logan Stahl, Mike Burket and Billy Woods.

Some newcomers expected to play key roles for the Indians are junior running back/defensive back Drew Blon,  junior lineman Joe Girouard, junior tight end/defensive lineman Albert Calfo, junior linebacker Will Shaw and defensive back Adam Cisney.

UPPER ST. CLAIR PANTHERS:

Yes, it was another playoff year for the Upper St. Clair Panthers, but struggling to make the playoffs and then losing in the opening round is not what high school football fans are used to seeing from the black and red. However the WPIAL’s all-time winningest coach in Jim Render hopes that was the extent of the Panthers rebuilding phase.

Junior quarterback Jackson Geisler will run the offense for Upper St. Clair. Geisler stepped in a year ago when starter Dan Trocano was injured in the final game of the regular season against Mount Lebanon and guided the Panthers in their 24-0 First Round playoff loss at North Allegheny. Geisler connected on only four passes for 20 yards in that loss, but the duel threat as a passer and runner is looking forward to starting 2015 with a clean slate.

It will help Geisler’s maturation that the team’s leading rusher returns in junior Thomas Vissman. Last year as a sophomore, Vissman averaged over 6 yards a carry with 855 yards on 136 carries. Vissman will be the work horse with some backfield help from others including senior Kevin Chrissis.

Senior Gunner Lund saw some time under center last year, but will get the start at tight end where he will be among several targets for the Panthers passing game including fellow tight end Ryan Harkleroad and senior wide receivers Doug Wagner (25 catches, 407 yards in 2014) and Conner Brennan.

Look for USC to pound the ball on offense and be tough against the run on defense thanks to some size and experience on the lines led by 6’7 Pitt recruit Brandon Ford. The University is also looking at fellow Panthers lineman junior Gabe Houy, who stands at 6’8. Senior Matt Fennell adds more size at 6’7. Also returning up front is senior Jay Miller, who missed his junior season after tearing his ACL in a scrimmage game last August.  

WOODLAND HILLS WOLVERINES:

By the very lofty Woodland Hills standards, 2014 was a bit of a down season. While most programs dream of finishing the regular season 7-2 overall with a share of a conference crown and a playoff victory before a season ending loss in the Quarterfinals, that is not good enough for the championship driven Wolverines.

The great George Novak is back as the only coach in Woodland Hills High School history, now in his 29th season guiding the Wolverines. The 65-year old has a lifetime coaching record of 286-135-1 and is 56 wins away from the now retired Joe Hamilton for second place on the all-time WPIAL coaching wins list behind Upper St. Clair’s Jim Render.  

Coach should be able to get closer to the 300 win mark with a team loaded with expectations. Most of those high hopes center around the return of one of the top running backs in the nation in senior Miles Sanders. Rivals.com ranks Sanders as the #1 running back in the country and Scout.com #3. The Penn State recruit has been a starter since his freshman year and has 3,050 yards rushing on 372 carries in three seasons. Last season, he rushed for 1,248 yards and averaged 10.9 yards per carry. He scored 17 touchdowns in 2014 and has 43 career TDs. He also ended up third in receiving with 8 catches for 140 yards.

Also returning is senior quarterback Jeremiah Jones. He hit on 41 of 85 passes for 842 yards and seven touchdown tosses a year ago. Jones also was third on the team in rushing with 52 carries for 367 yards and six touchdowns. Senior Jaymond Dunn is expected to be the top returning target after finishing second in receptions a year ago 8 catches for 263 yards (an average of 32.9) and three touchdowns. Senior Jo-El Shaw also returns after gaining 587 yards on 72 carries with 11 touchdowns a year ago. Senior Amon Baldwin-Youngblood anchors the offensive line.

A strong defense is a George Novak staple and that continued to be the case a year ago. The Wolverines yielded only 147 points in eleven games last season, the fifth stingiest defense in the classification. Senior defensive back Jeremiah Jones will be joined by Miles Sanders to help lead that unit in 2015.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH IN THE SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE:

1.      Woodland Hills Wolverines

2.      Upper St. Clair Panthers

3.      Penn Hills Indians

4.      Mount Lebanon Blue Devils

5.      Bethel Park Black Hawks 

6.      Peters Township Indians

7.      Baldwin Highlanders

8.      Canon-McMillan Big Macs

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