WPIAL Class A breakdown: Jeannette, Imani Christian look to challenge perennial favorite Clairton

Saturday, August 19, 2017 | 10:48 PM

The buzz began in early July and created a perfect storm of curiosity and discord.

A social media-fueled debate questioned whether Clairton, the three-time defending champion, was still the football team to beat in WPIAL Class A.

Wait, there was a question?

A set of rankings from a Twitter account that covers the WPIAL said Imani Christian should be No. 1 to open the season and plopped Clairton, the defending WPIAL champion and PIAA runner-up, at No. 2.

Imani Christian does have talent. But, No. 1? It was a head-scratcher, even to Imani.

Suddenly, the unproven Saints became the most intriguing team in the WPIAL, while Clairton took exception.

The Bears, with 13 WPIAL titles, including nine since 2006, can't wait to settle things on the field. They begin as the Tribune-Review's No. 1 team.

“I know one thing: we're not No. 2,” Clairton senior wide receiver Tre'sean Howard said. “That is just crazy. We're going to take care of (Imani) when we see them.”

And don't forget about No. 2 Jeannette, the WPIAL runner-up that returns several talented players. The Jayhawks have holes to fill on both lines but have skill players all over the field.

But even Jeannette, exhaustively tired of finishing second to Clairton, gives props to the Bears, the WPIAL's team of the decade who beat the Jayhawks in the last two district title games.

“You have to put Clairton at No. 1 with all that history and tradition,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “I don't care if Joe Blow's team has five Division-I guys: you don't know until you step on the field and play.”

Clairton, Imani and Jeannette play in the Eastern Conference, which already appears to have one big sleeper hold on the rest of the classification.

“And we get all three of them,” first-year Greensburg Central Catholic coach Aaron Smetanka said. “We're putting in the time. We'll see if it pays off.”

Bombarded with unsolicited shade, Imani Christian tried to take the gracious ranking in stride, an “aw-shucks,” followed by a tip of the cap before getting back to business.

The Saints were 5-6 last season and lost 32-6 to Rochester in the WPIAL quarterfinals.

Clairton and Jeannette combined to outscore Imani, 85-6.

“Both Clairton and Jeannette beat us pretty bad (last season),” Imani coach Ronnell Heard said. “Trust me, we have a lot of work to do. We have potential, but we have to put the work in.”

So where does Imani belong in the preseason rankings?

“Honestly? No. 4,” Heard said. “We haven't done anything.”

The Saints are No. 3 in this publication.

Howard is the building block at Clairton. Bears coach Wayne Wade called him “the future of the team” after last season's WPIAL title game at Robert Morris that saw the Bears down Jeannette, 26-6.

Stars Lamont Wade (Penn State) and Noah Hamlin (Cincinnati) are gone, but the Bears will look to reload.

“It's next-man-up here,” Clairton senior tight end/linebacker Anthony Pruit said. “We put on our uniforms for our city. It's a tradition, and everybody is ready to keep it going.”

Same concept at Jeannette, although the Jayhawks are 0-5 against Clairton since moving to Class A in 2014.

“We feel like we can beat anybody,” Clairton senior running back Kijafi Fuqua said. “Rankings don't mean anything to us. We can't be worried about that stuff.”

Clairton coach Wayne Wade will miss the first four games of the season due to a school-imposed suspension for comments he made after last year's PIAA championship game.

Jeannette brings back senior Robert Kennedy, who will move to quarterback, and other splash playmakers in receivers Marcus Barnes, Melik Gordon and Tre Cunningham.

Imani has seniors Sam Fairley and Asante Watkins, transfers from University Prep, and Plum transfer Rahmon Hart. While the offensive line is smaller than most, the Saints have playmakers to get around that deficiency.

Fort Cherry could be the favorite in the Tri-County South behind dual-threat quarterback Ryhan Culberson, and semifinalist Rochester, despite heavy graduation losses, should have enough talent to get back to the playoffs in the Big Seven. Northgate might not be far behind, however, after a 10-win season. The Flames' Surron Adams is one of the top returning rushers in Class A.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

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