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I’m Matt Popchock, and I’m just getting started.
POPCHOCK SAYS: It’s time to announce the first-ever POPCHOCK ON PREPS High School Football Game of the Week. But first, a brief preview of the 2014 WPIAL football season is in order.
I’ve arbitrarily picked ten of the most prominent teams in the district, and ten burning questions they must answer as the season unfolds (h/t Pennsylvania High School Helmet Project, FinestPreps.com, John Poole and the Woodland Hills Sports Network).
Last year school officials tried to replace a legend. This year they’ve tried something simpler: replacing the man who replaced the legend. In fact, they did so with a different legend. Tom Nola, who led Clairton to four consecutive state titles and a Pennsylvania-record 66-game winning streak, relieves Don Militzer as head coach of the Gators. One player to watch under his guidance is junior tailback Adam White, who gained 295 yards as a backup in 2013. How well will Nola fare without the deucedly clever coaching staff he enjoyed at Clairton, and without most of the FBS-caliber talent that had kept his new program competitive?
The Warriors have been one of the front-runners in WPIAL Class AAA throughout their brief existence, and senior athlete Jordan Whitehead should keep them in the spotlight this year. “J-Wiz” ranks among the top 20 cornerbacks nationally by 247Sports, and Ohio State is one of the “Power 5” schools that has recruited him most heavily. Offensively, he ranked fourth in Triple-A with 20 touchdowns, and Pitt is one of the schools recruiting him as a receiver. Whitehead is expected to decide by the middle of the season. What will be the final chapter in the recruiting saga of one of western Pennsylvania’s most complete players?
Last year the Quips, once again, were beaten on their quest for a PIAA crown, and once again, on some level, they were guilty of beating themselves. If senior quarterback Darrien Fields (1,254 pass yards, 17 TDs in ’13) can take good care of the ball, he and all-conference receiver Patrick Anderson, who had a breakout game at Heinz Field despite a loss, should be a deadly combination. Meanwhile, lineman Kaezon Pugh leads one of the most stubborn defenses in western PA, and he’s attracted attention from Pitt, which loves to recruit from Aliquippa. Does it still have enough program depth to overcome past mistakes?
Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic:
Its collective prayer was answered when all-purpose back and Duquesne commit P.J. Fulmore crossed the goal line for a two-point conversion at Hersheypark Stadium that gave the Trojans their first Class A state championship. The school’s northward relocation from parochial Troy Hill to a fine new Cranberry Township campus takes a bit of attention off him and fellow 1,000-yard rusher Jerome Turner (24 TDs in ’13), who seems quietly poised for greatness too. Coach Bob Ravenstahl’s challenge is finding more team toughness, especially on defense. Will his new suburban surroundings help the privately funded school?
Resourceful coach George Novak shouldn’t have trouble finding a new quarterback, as Jeremiah Jones took advantage of limited reps to throw for 250 yards and a couple touchdowns as a sophomore. But the shinier star for the Wolverines, who have a history of matriculating players to Division I and the NFL, is junior tailback Miles Sanders, who committed to Penn State after amassing 1,064 yards and 14 TDs in 2013. Can Sanders, slowed by late-season injuries the last two years, carry the WPIAL Class AAAA runners-up back to Heinz Field, and can he do it without crutches?
Beginning in 2006 at least one Parkway Conference team has reached the district finals every year, and the Indians are a solid bet to keep the streak alive. In 2013 quarterback and St. Francis (Pa.) commit Andrew Koester threw for 19 TDs and 1,651 yards, and senior tailback Chayse Dillon (1,203 rush yards, 13 TDs in ’13) spearheads their wildcat offense, a downhill attack that gives any opponent fits. Can the two-time WPIAL Class AAA champions survive the onerous Parkway again, and can they get head coach Bob Palko his first state championship ring since his son Tyler quarterbacked the team in 2001?
Head coach Joe Rossi’s pursuit of an elusive PIAA Class AA title is over, but he’ll keep one eye on all-state quarterback Brett Brumbaugh, who continues to chase history. America’s No. 36 pro-style passer per 247Sports needs just 1,164 more yards to become the second Brumbaugh sibling in three years to hold the WPIAL career passing mark. Fittingly, Temple assistant Adam DiMichele, who set the record at Sto-Rox in 2004, has helped the Owls recruit the undecided senior. Barring injury, there is little question Brumbaugh will break that record. The more appropriate question is, by how much?
Pittsburgh Central Catholic:
Had they not run into the St. Joseph’s Prep buzzsaw, the Vikings would have a state championship, not just a district one, to defend. Repeating won’t be easy without most of their 2013 regulars, though Johnny Petrishen, a Pitt recruit, and fellow senior Joe Tindal are equally effective defensive backs. Plus, converted tight end Graham Adomitis (126 offensive yards, 3 TDs in ’13) has shown potential on offense and special teams. Head coach Terry Totten is a master of smashmouth football, but who is left to do the smashing now that one of his deepest senior classes ever is gone?
2013 marked the end of one of the greatest eras in Pennsylvania prep football history. New coach Wayne Wade, who coordinated all those awesome defenses over the years, will usher in his era with an offense built around junior athlete Aaron Mathews (1,525 offensive yards, 15 TDs in ’13), 247Sports’ No. 8 overall Class of ’16 PA prospect. This team can win by out-gunning others, but Wade’s defense needs to regain the aura of invincibility it once had. Can the Bears climb back on top of the Class A mountain as the window of opportunity begins closing for others, and perhaps opening for new league rivals Greensburg Central Catholic and Jeannette?
As teams with deadly quarterbacks turn the pages in their playbooks, all-conference senior T.J. Holl should have another big year. The son of coach Don Holl ranked among the WPIAL leaders with 2,527 offensive yards (27 TDs), preferred target Eric Mrkonja is back, and interior lineman Tyler Hudanick has offers from 30 schools, namely Penn State and Pitt. The Raiders finally escaped the tall shadow perpetually cast by Northern Eight rival North Allegheny last season. Can Holl & Son push the remarkable turnaround of this program to the next level before it gets overshadowed again?
Now it’s time to announce my Game of the Week:
Why you should care: POPCHOCK ON PREPS aims not only to spotlight the top games in the WPIAL, but also the top players–especially those who have yet to select a college. In that case, why not start with, arguably, the best and most sought-after one? Whitehead (5’10”, 170 lbs.) is ranked by Panther Digest as the No. 22 cornerback nationally in the Class of 2015, but the senior might also be the most complete player in the WPIAL. In 2013 he continued to make Central Valley’s secondary a no-fly zone; the Warriors, last year’s WPIAL runners-up, were the second-least scored upon team in Class AAA. He racked up 1,044 offensive yards, and in the playoffs he proved he can be a threat on special teams. Head coach Mark Lyons is trying to pull a Chip Kelly and get Whitehead more touches this season, as Chris Harlan of Trib Total Media reported. Their first obstacle will be a Montour team in transition, coming off the kind of mediocre season that has been uncommon under coach Lou Cerro, and having graduated a dual-threat starting quarterback and its top receiver. Last year the Spartans started eight underclassmen on each side of the ball, and this game will be a big test of their maturity.
I’m Matt Popchock, and that’s all she wrote.
(Featured image of Central Valley senior athlete Jordan Whitehead courtesy of John Heller/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)