WPIAL Class 5A football breakdown: Parity expected for ‘deepest classification in the state’

Wednesday, August 14, 2019 | 11:19 AM

Despite what Penn Hills did last season, the tide of public opinion in Class 5A football is shifting.

It appears to be moving away from one-team dominance and turning toward more wide-spread parity.

Penn Hills rolled to WPIAL and PIAA championships last season, the exclamation point a 36-31 win over Manheim Central in Hershey that saw Daequan Hardy turn in a performance for the ages: He scored four touchdowns and intercepted three passes, including one he returned 100 yards for a score.

Penn Hills lost more than 20 seniors — including Hardy, another big-play wideout in Dante Cephus and quarterback Hollis Mathis — from an all-time team and will look to reestablish itself with a number of new faces.

Replicating the success of a 16-0 team that left a trail of big plays — and red smoke — is a large ask of this year’s group. But the Indians are expected to remain competitive and are still considered favorites by some to take the Northern Conference.

About that parity …

“Class 5A is the deepest classification in the state,” Penn Hills coach Jon LeDonne said. “There is great competition in the WPIAL. We shall see how our youth matures over the course of the regular season.”

Many of the same teams that stepped into the ring of contention last season are expected to be in the mix again. Pinpointing a favorite is the challenge.

Gateway won a WPIAL title two years ago and made the semifinals last year. Junior running back and linebacker Derrick Davis had a hand in both finishes, and the coveted prospect is back to lead the top-ranked Gators, who also feature two-way standout Tui Brown.

Penn-Trafford might have something to say, however, as the Warriors battle Gateway in the Foothills Conference that also features a young but talented McKeesport team several coaches cited as a team to watch.

Senior tailback Caleb Lisbon and senior quarterback Gabe Dunlap are playmakers, and the Warriors return their entire front line.

“I think you could make a case for some familiar teams from last year,” Gateway coach Don Holl said. “Like last year’s semifinalists.”

Returning semifinal teams are Penn Hills, Gateway, Peters Township and West Allegheny.

Peters Township edged Penn-Trafford in the quarterfinals 38-35 in a classic that saw the teams combine for a 42-point first quarter. The Indians have just about everybody back.

“I think what makes it so competitive is that it includes many teams who have had perennial success,” Holl said. “Even at the old Quad-A level. And there are at least two or three in every section, every year, that could win it.”

Gateway and Penn-Trafford will waste little time getting reacquainted. They meet in the conference opener Aug. 30 in Harrison City.

“I think it will be as tough as ever,” Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane said of the classification. “That’s the way 5A has been. There has been a different champion every year. There are a variety of teams that can win it.”

West Allegheny won the first WPIAL Class 5A title three years ago, Gateway was the champion in 2017 and Penn Hills won last year.

Penn Hills defeated West Allegheny for the district crown at Norwin Knights Stadium — the first time since 1985 the WPIAL played a championship football game at a high school.

West Allegheny has a new coach, Chris Lucas, after the departure of esteemed coach Bob Palko.

After a brief, three-month retirement, Palko returned to football and is now the coach at Mt. Lebanon.

Legendary coach Jim Render also stepped aside — after 49 years on the sidelines, 41 as the head man at Upper St. Clair. Mike Junko will guide the Panthers this fall.

“I would argue that Class 5A, outside of 6A, is the toughest conference in the WPIAL at this time,” said Peters Township coach T.J. Plack, whose Indians reached the WPIAL semifinals for the first time since 1976 before falling to Penn Hills. “I know each and every night is a battle for Peters Township, and I do not see that changing. I believe a couple programs that had a large number of juniors last year gain experience will be pushing for their conference championship and a long run in the playoffs.”

Baldwin and Bethel Park also are expected to be improved and should push for playoff berths in the Allegheny 8.

Plack said tradition plays a role in the parity aspect.

“There are a lot of storied programs in this class, along with recent upstart programs that could continue to improve,” he said.

Among them, Plack noted, are Upper St. Clair, Woodland Hills, West Allegheny, North Hills, Franklin Regional, Mars and others.

Gateway and Penn-Trafford will get a shot against a national power. Both will travel to play Massillon Washington in Ohio.


1. Gateway (12-1)

The Gators are well-stocked in the skill department again and should not have an issue scoring points. The development of a new quarterback will be key, and getting junior Derrick Davis going early could push the Gators ahead of the pack. Gateway’s defense allowed 92 points all last season.

Preseason rankings

2. Peters Township (10-3)

3. Penn-Trafford (9-3)

4. Penn Hills (16-0)

5. Woodland Hills (5-7)


Michael CarmodyMars, sr., OL/DL

The Notre Dame commit, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound lineman, is ranked 117th on ESPN’s Top 300 prospect list. He helped the Fightin’ Planets average 225 rushing yards per game last season.

Josh Casilli – Peters Township, sr., WR/S

Speedster was a catch-and-go playmaker for the Indians last season. The Penn commit had 47 receptions for 877 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Derrick Davis – Gateway, jr., RB/LB

A difference-making player since he stepped on the field as a freshman, Davis will have his pick at a high-end college program. Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Penn State and Notre Dame are among his list of 20-plus offers.

Caleb Lisbon – Penn-Trafford, sr., RB/S

A significant playmaker for the Warriors the past two seasons, Lisbon is a bounce-outside-and-go rusher and quietly strong pass defender. He ran for 1,329 yards and scored 19 touchdowns last season.

Josh Rawlings – Woodland Hills, sr., TE

Virginia commit is rated as the No. 1 tight end in the state by 247Sports.com — No. 41 in the nation. Rawlings is 6-5, 245 and can open running lanes for ball carriers and short-range pass-catchers. He had 15 receptions last season.


Aug. 30: Gateway at Penn-Trafford

Neighboring rivals met in the WPIAL title game two years ago and have anticipated every matchup against one another since.

Sept. 6: Peters Township at Woodland Hills

The early lead in the Allegheny 8 could be up for grabs as a pair of big-play teams meet at the Wolvarena.

Oct. 25: Gateway at McKeesport

This game seems to carry meaning every year, although Gateway handled the high-scoring Tigers last year, 34-6.




Bethel Park

Chartiers Valley


Fox Chapel

Franklin Regional



Kiski Area





North Hills

Penn Hills


Peters Township



Upper St. Clair

West Allegheny

Woodland Hills


6A | 5A | 4A | 3A | 2A | A

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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