WPIAL football conference preview: Class A Eastern

Sunday, August 20, 2017 | 1:21 PM

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The favorite

Clairton (14-1 overall, 7-0 Eastern Conference in 2016)

It never is smart to bet against Clairton, even when the Bears lose program all-timers like Lamont Wade. But the Bears are senior-heavy this season and still have players capable of leading the program to its 14th WPIAL title — and 10th since 2006. This could be the year they are met with more resistance than usual, with Jeannette and Imani Christian primed to challenge the Bears at the top. Still, the Bears, who averaged 43.7 points last season, return senior quarterback Tre'Sean Howard, one of the top returning players in the conference. He will be complemented by senior tailback Kijafi Fuqua. The Bears' first win will be its 40th in a row against WPIAL competition.

The contenders

Jeannette (12-2, 6-1)

After two consecutive WPIAL runner-up finishes to Clairton, the Jayhawks are primed to push the Bears for the top spot in the conference and WPIAL. Senior Robert Kennedy moves to quarterback and has some tall receivers in 6-foot-4 Marcus Barnes and 6-3 Tre Cunningham. But can a young line come together?

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Imani Christian (5-6, 3-4)

Imani is creating plenty of buzz based on its potential. Junior Rahmon Hart Jr. transferred from Plum and the 6-3, 205-pounder adds more skill to an already talented offense. Seniors Asante Watkins and Sam Fairley, both receivers/defensive backs who left University Prep, will be key playmakers for the unproven Saints.

Bishop Canevin (8-3, 5-2)

The Crusaders, who reached the WPIAL quarterfinals last season, return five starters on each side of the ball. Zach Trusky will be a key two-way player, at running back and as a three-year starting cornerback. Canevin's tightest game last year was a 33-30 win over Imani.

Springdale (6-6, 3-4)

Seth Napierkowski, a former Burrell quarterback, takes over the reins of the Dynamos, who reached the WPIAL quarterfinals before getting bounced by Jeannette, 69-21. Josh Harmon is a key offensive player, having caught 29 passes for 534 yards and nine scores, and rushing for 386 yards.

Riverview (3-7, 2-5)

After their first playoff trip in nine years as a wild-card team, the Raiders once again are battling low roster numbers and must replace their most productive players. Jared Massack, the son of former Riverview and Fox Chapel coach Todd Massack, is the new quarterback.

Greensburg Central Catholic (2-8, 2-5)

Former North Catholic and St. Vincent quarterback Aaron Smetanka takes over the Centurions and will try to develop an inexperienced group in his rookie season as coach. Junior Max Pisula is a key two-way player and could start at quarterback. GCC missed the playoffs last season for the first time in 13 years.

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Leechburg (1-9, 0-7)

A young group that consists of only two seniors will make its way through the top-heavy Eastern after winning just once last year (35-34 over Brownsville in Week 8). Junior Tanner Dudek is a talented kicker but might have to shine at receiver.

Players to watch

Tre'Sean Howard

Clairton, Sr., QB/DB

Shifty and experienced, Howard is expected to take the reins at quarterback where he aims to lead the Bears to a WPIAL four-peat. Had 900 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns last season.

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Marcus Barnes

Jeannette, Jr., WR/DB

Jeannette coach Roy Hall said Barnes has some of the best hands of any player he has coached. At 6-4, he has range and gains separation well in the red zone. His father is former Steelers and San Diego Charger receiver Johnnie Barnes.

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Rahmon Hart

Imani Christian, Jr., WR/DB

A transfer from Plum, Hart recently was ranked the No. 1 receiving prospect by Rivals.com. A big target at 6-3/205, he caught 24 passes for 533 yards and six scores as a sophomore.

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Games to watch

9.23 Jeannette at Imani

The conference's best receivers (and possibly, defensive backs) square off in a Week 4 Saturday afternoon game in Wilkinsburg.

9.29 Imani at Clairton

Big-play potential lurks at every turn between two athletic teams. The Bears have not lost a home game since 2013, and could take a 20-game home winning streak into the much-anticipated matchup.

10.27 Jeannette at Clairton

Clairton has won five straight games against the Jayhawks, including back-to-back WPIAL finals. Both teams averaged better than 42 points last season.

Fast facts

• Clairton coach Wayne Wade is suspended for the first four games of the season as he serves a school-imposed suspension for comments he made after last year's PIAA championship game.

• Of the 14 WPIAL Class A champions to be crowned since 2003, 11 are from the Eastern Conference.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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