WPIAL Class 6A football breakdown: Coaches expect competitive year, wide-open field
By: Chris Harlan
Wednesday, August 14, 2019 | 11:19 AM
There was a worry the WPIAL Class 6A playoffs might be boring because every game is a rematch from the regular season.
After last year, that’s no longer a concern.
Not after watching fifth-seeded Seneca Valley celebrate a couple of postseason upsets, including a 17-point win over No. 1 North Allegheny. That helped clear a path for second-seeded Pine-Richland to celebrate at Heinz Field.
Now, as teams ready for another season, coaches see a Class 6A field that once again could be unpredictable.
“It’s wide open,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “I think (the field) is strong. It could be a really good, competitive year in 6A.”
Two-time defending champion Pine-Richland starts as the early favorite, but the Rams have some unanswered questions. They return a wealth of skill-position players, including 1,400-yard passer Cole Spencer and 1,400-yard rusher Luke Meckler, but their dominant offensive line graduated.
There are a handful of teams eager to end the Rams’ title run.
Graduation removed Penn State freshman Joey Porter Jr. and a number of other starters, but North Allegheny returns enough to remain a contender. Harvard recruit Jake Lugg (OL/DL) and Princeton recruit Luke Colella (WR/DB) are among the key pieces the Tigers bring back from a roster that went undefeated in the regular season.
Central Catholic has an abundance of Division I talent on the defensive line, a unit that includes North Carolina commit A.J. Beatty and Elliot Donald, one of the state’s top juniors. The defense again should be the Vikings’ strength, but the offense could be much improved.
Seneca Valley returns Division I linemen Josh Kaltenberger and Kevin Meeder from a lineup that finished as the WPIAL runner-up. That oversized offensive line took the Raiders to Heinz Field for the second time in three years.
Mt. Lebanon enters this season with a new coach but a familiar name. Bob Palko, who won a record eight WPIAL titles at West Allegheny, was hired in February to coach the Blue Devils.
Canon-McMillan, Norwin, Hempfield and Butler round out the 6A conference.
“I see a lot of competition,” North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of good football.”
Three of the nine teams won’t make the playoffs.
The six-team playoff bracket adopted last season by the WPIAL will be used again this year. The teams seeded first and second receive first-round byes and host semifinal games the following week.
Now that they have experienced this new playoff format, coaches see good and bad elements to it.
“We won, so I think I like it a little bit extra,” Kasperowicz said. “You reward the regular season. Those byes are huge. That’s something we talked about and worked toward. It puts a little more urgency in the regular season. You can’t just cruise.”
“If I just went on last year, everyone would expect me to come out and say I hate it,” Walker said with a laugh.
“We had a huge win at the end of the season and then had that week off.”
No coach would turn down a first-round bye, but taking a week off in early November comes with risks.
North Allegheny defeated rival Pine-Richland in Week 9 in an emotional victory that earned NA the No. 1 seed. Both teams then had a week off. Pine-Richland won its semifinal over third-seeded Mt. Lebanon, 46-16. North Allegheny lost that week to No. 5 Seneca Valley, 31-14.
“I think some years (the bye week impact) just depends on your team,” Walker said. “Maybe it’s a coin flip on what’s best. Pine had a good week against Mt. Lebanon. We just didn’t play our best game.”
The rematches are the one consensus criticism about the playoff format. The teams face everybody once during the regular season just to play the same opponents again in the playoffs.
“To be honest, that’s probably the thing I like about it the least,” Kasperowicz said. “But you can’t change it. There are only nine teams.”
1. Pine-Richland (11-3)
The defending WPIAL champions graduated their dominant offensive line, but the Rams do return most of their skill-position starters. That group includes 1,400-yard passer Cole Spencer, 1,400-yard rusher Luke Meckler and 35-catch receiver Eli Jochem.
2. Central Catholic (7-4)
3. North Allegheny (10-1)
4. Seneca Valley (9-4)
5. Mt. Lebanon (6-6)
A.J. Beatty – Central Catholic, sr., TE/DE
The North Carolina commit is part of a Vikings defensive line that features four Division I recruits. He earned second-team all-conference honors at tight end last season, but his strength is defense.
Josh Kaltenberger – Seneca Valley, sr., OL/DL
The Purdue recruit is among the top centers in the WPIAL. He anchored the middle of a Seneca Valley line that reached the WPIAL championship game last season.
Jake Lugg – North Allegheny, sr., OL/DL
The Harvard recruit is a standout blocker at tackle for North Allegheny. He’s the younger brother of Notre Dame lineman Josh Lugg, who also starred for NA, but Jake has made a name for himself.
Luke Meckler – Pine-Richland, sr., RB/DB
Meckler rushed for 1,492 yards last season and scored 21 touchdowns for the Rams, who won the WPIAL Class 6A title. Against Central Catholic, he scored four times in the first quarter.
Jack Salopek – Norwin, sr., QB
The Western Michigan recruit completed 116 of 226 passes for 1,790 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He had a pair of four-TD passing games last season against Penn-Trafford and Mt. Lebanon.
Aug. 30: Central Catholic at Seneca Valley
The teams split two matchups last season and both scores were close. Central Catholic won 20-14 in Week 1, and Seneca Valley won the rematch 15-14 in the WPIAL quarterfinals.
Sept. 27: Pine-Richland at Central Catholic
Combined, these two teams have won the WPIAL’s largest classification six consecutive years. Pine-Richland defeated Central Catholic, 42-21, last season.
Oct. 25: North Allegheny at Pine-Richland
North Allegheny claimed the No. 1 seed last season with a Week 9 victory over rival Pine-Richland. It’s possible the top seed could come down to the final week again.
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .