WPIAL Class A football breakdown: Defending champ Clairton brimming with confidence, talent

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Tuesday, September 8, 2020 | 9:01 PM


Clairton returned to the top of Class A in 2019, and with numerous key starters returning, many feel the Bears are the team to beat in 2020.

Clairton coach Wayne Wade agrees.

He also agrees Class A got a little stronger with the addition of Burgettstown, Shenango and Carmichaels, all of whom dropped down from Class 2A.

“A lot of people have us ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the state,” Wade said. “I know Bishop Guilfoyle returns a lot of starters and that Steelton-Highspire is going to be good.

“Those teams that dropped down are good, along with Jeannette, Cornell and Greensburg Central Catholic got (several) transfers. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Sto-Rox, a Class A finalist in 2019, and Laurel moved to Class 2A after PIAA realignment.

Two key players returning for Clairton are running back Isaiah Berry and wide receiver and Jonte Sanders, though Sanders is moving to quarterback this season to replace four-year starter Brendan Parsons.

Clairton graduated only four seniors from the WPIAL championship squad. The Bears lost to Farrell in the PIAA playoffs.

“I would say they are the team to beat,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “But there are a lot of good teams.”

The Jayhawks lost some key players to graduation, but Hall is counting on players like quarterback/running back Roberto Smith, quarterback James Sanders, wide receiver Brett Birch, linebacker Toby Cline and lineman Tavon Briston.

Just in the Eastern Conference, Jeannette, Greensburg Central Catholic and Springdale should be strong. Burgettstown, Shenango, Cornell and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart will battle in the Big Seven, while West Greene will face tough challenges from California, Carmichaels and Jefferson-Morgan in the Tri-County South.

West Greene coach Brian Hanson said he doesn’t want people to forget about his Pioneers, who reached the semifinals in 2019 and fell to Sto-Rox.

“I know we lost 85% of our offense with the graduation of Ben Jackson (Army) and Kolin Walker (Waynesburg), but most of our line returns and Corey Wise is a capable running back,” Hanson said. “I like what Jefferson-Morgan returns. California will be good, and Carmichaels is good. Our conference is ground-and-pound other than Monessen, which has players that play well in space.”

Monessen has a new coach in Shane Swope. It had two tackles — Mark Mizerak (Greensburg Central Catholic) and Trevian Thompson (Clairton) — transfer.

Newcomer Shenango, with running back Reis Watkins, and Burgettstown, with running back Shane Kemper, feature strong ground games and should be the favorites in the Big Seven Conference. Shenango also will return quarterback Tino Campoli when he recovers from an injury.

Cornell is restocking the shelves in the Big Seven, and Rochester and OLSH look to make a jump with young squads. Union is led by senior guard Aaron Gunn.

THE FAVORITE

1. Clairton (11-3)

The Bears will be looking for their 15th WPIAL title. Coach Wayne Wade feels his team has some unfinished business after falling to Farrell in the state playoffs. They only graduated four starters and Wade feels the team is ready to make another run that he hopes ends in Hershey. The Bears are big and fast.

Preseason rankings

2. Shenango (6-4)

3. Greensburg Central Catholic (7-4)

4. Jeannette (9-2)

5. Burgettstown (9-1)

*2019 records

THE STARS

Isaiah Berry — Clairton, sr., RB/DB

The Bears will rely on a strong running and a huge offensive line this season. Berry rushed for 1,042 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2019. He and Dontae Sanders give the Bears a solid 1-2 punch to take pressure off new quarterback Jonte Sanders.

Brett Birch — Jeannette, jr., WR/DB

Birch is coming off a solid sophomore season. He’s already receiving Division I offers. He had 23 catches for 246 yards. He also plays defensive back.

Aaron Gunn — Union, sr., OG

Gunn is a Top 20 player in the state. The 6-foot-3, 309-pound guard is quick for his size and is powerful. He’s a dominating force on the inside. He is committed to play at Louisville.

Shane Kemper — Burgettstown, sr., RB/FS

Kemper is a 6-2, 185-pound physical running back. The Blue Devils graduated their quarterback from a year ago, so Kemper, who shared time with Cyle Conley, will be asked to carry the offensive load this season. He rushed for 234 yards and two touchdowns in 2019.

Reis Watkins — Shenango, sr., QB/RB/LB

The 6-3, 230-pound Watkins will be a force at running back and linebacker but will start the season at quarterback. He rushed for 1,269 yards and scored 13 touchdowns in 2019.

DON’T MISS

Sept. 11: Clairton at Jeannette

This is usually the final regular season game for both teams, but because of covid-19 and the condensed schedule, it was moved up to the first regular season game. It will show both coaches a lot about their teams.

Sept. 17: West Greene at California

The top teams from 2019 in the Tri-County South will square off early. Both teams like to run the football. This could determine the conference title.

Oct. 2: Burgettstown at Shenango

The new teams to the Big Seven Conference will square off in Lawrence County, possibly for the conference title. Both teams have talented running backs.

THE PREVIEWS

Here are links to TribHSSN’s team-by-team previews for Class A.

Eastern Conference

Bishop Canevin

Clairton

Greensburg C.C.

Imani Christian

Jeannette

Leechburg

Riverview

Springdale

Tri-County South Conference

Avella

Bentworth

California

Carmichaels

Jefferson-Morgan

Mapletown

Monessen

West Greene

Big Seven Conference

Burgettstown

Cornell

Fort Cherry

Northgate

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart

Rochester

Shenango

Union

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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