WPIAL football conference preview: Class 2A Midwestern Athletic

Friday, August 18, 2017 | 10:48 PM

The favorite

Neshannock (12-2 overall, 7-0 Midwestern in 2016)

Reigning conference champion Neshannock is looking to turn the page after having a special season halted in the WPIAL final, losing 49-14 to Steel Valley. The Lancers outscored opponents 535-222 with a dynamic offense led by graduates Frank Antuono, Danny Welker, Tyler Sear and Sean Doran. Picking up the slack will be Seth Fehrs, Chris Scott and Joey Nerti, who were all-conference DBs last season, as well as lineman Mason Davison.

The contenders

Riverside (9-3, 6-1)

The Panthers lost to just two opponents last season, WPIAL champion Steel Valley twice and runner-up Neshannock. Wide Receiver Austin Dambach, linebacker Woodrow Hughes and lineman Dylan Shannon are back after earning all-conference honors in the MAC.

Laurel (8-4, 4-3)

Senior RB/DB Jesse Pacifico is back after earning all-MAC first-team honors on defense. He ran for 285 yards and six scores. Senior DB Brett Shooster was an honorable mention selection. Laurel graduated nine all-conference players.

CW North Catholic (6-5, 4-3)

The Trojans have a lot to replace, including several skill players who transferred or graduated. Seniors Seth Benson (OL), Jack Cassidy (LB) and Ryan Maziarz (DB) and freshman Nikhai Hill-Green (LB) were all-conference picks.

South Side (4-6, 3-4)

Gone is all-conference RB AJ Crider (1,362 yards, 12 TDs), but the Rams will rely on returning starters up front in linemen Josh Hillard and Jake Navarra and tight ends Jaelen Crider and Austin Reilly.

Freedom (4-8, 3-4)

Quarterback Zach Rosa (87-202, 1,412 yards, 11 TDs) returns for his junior season after earning all-conference honors last season. Cody Ross and Kyle Borgman (644 yards, 4 TDs) will fill the backfield, with Jake Pail (17-205) as the top WR.

New Brighton (2-7, 1-6)

New Brighton will have to improve on its 12.8 ppg average in order to rise in the MAC standings. Senior WR/DB Deshawn Clark earned all-conference honors last season on defense. Lineman Burke Sheets (6-4, 230) and DB Alonzo Jackson also are back to lead the Lions.

Mohawk (1-8, 0-7)

The Warriors return 17 lettermen, including a deep junior class that gained experience in a tough 2017 season where they managed to score just 52 points against conference opponents and 139 overall.

Players to watch

Austin Dambach

Riverside, sr., WR

The talented pass-catcher had 32 receptions for 476 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The Lehigh recruit set a state single-game record, with his brother Jason as the quarterback, in 2015 with 348 yards on 13 receptions.

Mason Davison

Neshannock, sr., OL/DL

The 6-foot-2, 250-pound lineman helped protect a 2,100-yard passer and blocked for a 1,200-yard rusher last season.

Cody Ross

Freedom, jr., RB/LB

The 5-11, 215-pound junior was an all-MAC selection on defense last season, helping Freedom hold teams to 25.2 points per game by making 95 tackles. He also ran for 164 yards and three scores.

Games to watch

9.8 Freedom at New Brighton

The rivalry matchup was a nail-biter last season, as Freedom won 24-21, its lone win in its first six games.

10.6 Neshannock at Riverside

Neshannock breezed to a conference title unbeaten last season but Riverside stayed close, falling 20-13. The Panthers won their next five games.

10.13 Riverside at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic

In a game that could factor into playoff positioning, North Catholic will look to avenge a narrow 28-26 loss in 2016.

Fast facts

• Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic first-year coach Pat O’Shea replaced Jason Gildon, who was not retained. He has been an assistant for 25 years, most recently at CWNC.

• Graduate Zach Greene kicked five field goals for Freedom last season to earn all-MAC honors.

• South Side will open its season with a noon kickoff Aug. 26 against OLSH at home.

— Bill Hartlep

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