WPIAL Class 3A football breakdown: Scenery changes but Central Valley still team to beat
Tuesday, September 8, 2020 | 9:01 PM
The WPIAL Class 3A race may look a little different this year, but the winner could be the same.
Perennial contender Aliquippa has moved up to Class 4A, and Beaver Falls has moved down to Class 2A after fielding one of its best teams since 2016. The entire classification has also been broken into three conferences compared to two last year.
Despite the changes, defending WPIAL champion Central Valley remains the favorite, and even though the Warriors lost a few big contributors from last season, they look to be just as strong.
“We’re feeling OK, and we have our feet back underneath us,” Central Valley coach Mark Lyons said. “This is a refocused group, it’s a committed group, and they understand that there’s still a little bit of that bitter taste left over.”
Central Valley fell to Wyoming Area, 21-14, in the PIAA championship game.
The Warriors will have a few holes to fill as they need to find replacements for their leading rusher, receiver and tackler from a year ago. Despite the losses, Lyons has plenty of talent returning, and he’s excited about how they’ve handled themselves during the coronavirus pandemic.
Senior quarterback Ameer Dudley is back under center after accounting for 2,476 total yards and 32 touchdowns last season, and Sean Fitzsimmons returns on defense after recording 133 tackles, 26 of which went for a loss, and eight sacks. The longtime head coach is also excited about the talent he has coming up through the system.
“We’ve always done a great job of making sure that when it comes to their turn, they are ready to step up,” Lyons said. “I can tell you this, too: We have some guys that I’m really excited about, guys that have really taken care of their body and have committed in the offseason, and we look different physically.”
Outside of Central Valley, the rest of the Class 3A could be wide open. The North Catholic Trojans are normally in the mix and with a large group of athletes returning from last season, plus a chip on their shoulder, they could make noise this year too.
As he has the past few years, North Catholic coach Pat O’Shea said his players need to focus on the basics when they get to the playoffs, and he is hoping their loss to South Park in the first round last season can motivate them to a higher level of play.
“I think for the kids, it was something that will allow them to say, ‘OK, we need to get better and we need to pay attention to those fundamental issues of tackling on initial contact on defense, you can’t turn the ball over, and you can’t lose enthusiasm or excitement,’” O’Shea said. “But I think the kids haven’t forgotten about that loss, and it’s an important one to learn from.”
WPIAL Class 2A champion Avonworth will join the fray this season as well after being reclassified this offseason. The Antelopes went 15-1 last season and made a run to the PIAA championship game but graduated a large group of seniors who were key contributors. Despite the turnover, they are excited for their jump up in classification.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge, but it’s obviously going to be a little bit different,” Avonworth coach Duke Johncour said. “It’s Triple-A ball, versus Double-A ball, so the move up is definitely a challenge.”
Avonworth will get a good idea of where it stands when it meets up with Central Valley in the final week of the season.
After going 7-3 last year, Elizabeth Forward should be in the mix as well after a move into the Interstate Conference. Rather than battling in the trenches with the likes of Derry, Freeport and North Catholic, the Warriors will be taking on Class 3A newcomers Brownsville, South Allegheny and Southmoreland along with others.
Elizabeth Forward coach Mike Collodi will return athletes Nico Mrvos, Evan Lewis and tight end Chase Whatton, along with three of his five offensive linemen from last year. He said after making the playoffs the last three seasons, he believes his team is ready to take the next step.
“We just need to start winning some playoffs games, which we haven’t done yet,” Collodi said. “We lost three years ago to Beaver, then we lost to Beaver Falls in a first-round game, then we lost to Aliquippa last year. So we just need to take that next step, and the kids believe they can do it because it was something they needed to do as it was kind of uncharted waters for them.”
Not only should the classification be competitive, but it will be highlighted by strong quarterback play. Along with Dudley, Burrell’s Alex Arledge (2,462 yards, 27 TDs), Keystone Oaks dual-threat Logan Shrubb (1,590 passing yards, 1,231 rushing yards, 28 total TDs), Southmoreland’s Zach Cernuto (1,792 yards, 15 TDs) and East Allegheny’s Johnny DiNapoli (1,728 yards, 18 TDs) all turned in solid seasons last year and will be back for another.
Central Valley (13-2)
The Warriors return with a full cupboard of athletes in 2020 one year after winning a WPIAL title and making a PIAA championship appearance. Replacing top rusher Jaylen Guy and top receiver Jawon Hall, along with leading tackler Reed Fitzsimmons, will be key. Central Valley’s only regular season loss came at the hands of eventual PIAA Class 4A champion Thomas Jefferson.
2. North Catholic (8-2)
3. Elizabeth Forward (7-3)
4. Keystone Oaks (6-4)
5. Derry Area (9-3)
Alex Arledge – Burrell, sr., QB
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound signal caller threw for 2,462 yards and 27 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. He also put together a streak of 187 attempted passes last season without an interception, which ended on his final pass of the season.
Ameer Dudley – Central Valley, sr., QB
Dudley led Central Valley to a WPIAL championship and a PIAA title game appearance last season. He threw for 1,929 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 547 yards and tacked on eight more scores. He’ll lead the Warriors again this season in hopes of winning a second straight title.
Antonio Epps – South Allegheny, sr., RB/DB
A special two-way athlete, Epps ran for 1,307 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He also caught 17 passes for 376 yards and four touchdowns. He tallied two interceptions and deflected eight passes on defense as a junior.
Logan Shrubb – Keystone Oaks, sr., QB
A dual-threat quarterback, he has been a producer the past three years, throwing for more than 1,000 yards each season. His junior year was his best season thus far as he threw for 1,590 yards and ran for another 1,231. He contributed to 28 total touchdowns.
Chase Whatton – Elizabeth Forward, sr., DE/TE
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound, defensive end had his recruitment blow up after a junior season where he made 68 tackles, 12 sacks and 29 tackles for a loss. He also blocked five punts and was named the Class 3A Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Oct. 9: South Park at North Catholic
The Trojans will be looking for a little revenge after the Eagles ended their season in the playoffs last year. The Trojans had only lost one game up until that point.
Oct. 16: Burrell at Freeport
The teams put together a game for the ages last season as the Bucs converted a 2-point conversion in overtime to beat the Yellowjackets, 36-35, for just the second time in 13 years. Both teams lost big senior classes, but they could be in for another historical battle.
Oct. 23: Avonworth at Central Valley
The battle of two WPIAL defending champions will take place in the final week of the season. The Warriors are looking to defend their title while the Antelopes are looking to prove that they belong in the running in a bigger classification.
Allegheny 7 Conference
Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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