The Post-Gazette has previews of all our area's high school football teams. Here's an index to previews for all schools in the South Xtra zone.
*Baldwin 2015 Football Preview
*Bethel Park 2015 Football Preview
*Canon-McMillan 2015 Football Preview
*McKeesport 2015 Football Preview
*Mt. Lebanon 2015 Football Preview
*Peters Township 2015 Football Preview
*Upper St. Clair 2015 Football Preview
The Post-Gazette has previews of all our area's high school football teams. Here's an index to previews for all schools in the South Xtra zone.
Baldwin had to search to replace quarterback Doug Altavilla, a four-year starter who accounted for 2,285 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns last season.
The Highlanders limited their search to his old address and his brother Nick (5-11, 185, Sr.), the team's leading receiver from a year ago, as well as fellow wideout Brandon Schleicher (5-10, 175, Sr.).
"You need to be able to protect the ball, because in this conference everybody's got a good defense and everybody's got to be physical," coach Pete Wagner said. "The kid's got to be able to step in there and be an extension of the coaching staff and know what we want out there and convey that to the rest of the team."
The Highlanders decided to make Schleicher the quarterback, as moving Nick Altavilla from receiver would take away the team's top downfield threat from a year ago — he had 45 catches for 726 yards and led the team with seven total touchdowns.
After fighting through one of the toughest conferences in the WPIAL just to qualify for the postseason, Bethel Park is still at something of a loss to explain its season-ending, 27-17 loss at Altoona in the first round of the playoffs.
"We had a pretty good run to the playoffs, but that was a pretty tough loss to Altoona, no question," coach Jeff Metheny said. "We didn't have a lot of kids practicing and we kind of wore down a little bit."
If the Black Hawks are to improve on their 6-4 record from a year ago, they will need Metheny's son Levi (6-1, 200, Sr., QB-OLB-K) to carry them forward.
"He's strong, physical, throws the ball real well and he's a good leader," Metheny said. "He's a two-year starter, so I'm looking for big things out of him for sure."
There aren't many teams that had to deal with the kind of distractions Canon-McMillan went through a year ago.
Not only did the Big Macs have to cope with coach Ron Coder's midseason resignation and the promotion of offensive coordinator Terry George to the interim position, the players had to weather one of the toughest schedules in the WPIAL and finished the season 0-9, extending a 13-game losing streak.
Mike Evans was brought in to change all that.
Evans, a longtime assistant coach at California (Pa.) who played at Akron and Mercyhurst before brief training-camp stints with the Steelers and New Orleans Saints, took over the program in December with the promise of removing the distractions that have hampered Canon-McMillan and contributed to its six consecutive losing seasons.
Mt. Lebanon rebounded quite nicely to make the playoffs last year after a forgettable 3-6 showing in 2013.
Now the Blue Devils will look to take the next step and vault into title contention in the competitive Southeastern Conference.
"One of the biggest things has been changing the culture a little bit, and we've been talking about that over the last couple of years," fourth-year coach Mike Melnyk said. "Every coach wants to put their mark on a team, but the one thing we've emphasized is that we want to work harder than any other team, with coaches and players, and the commitment level from the players has been way up there."
Even though Mt. Lebanon qualified for the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs a year ago, it went into the playoffs with a gasp rather than at full steam. The Blue Devils were 5-1 after six games, but dropped their final three in the regular season and were drubbed, 35-10, at McKeesport in the first round of the playoffs.
McKeesport coach George Smith is a realist when he looks at his team coming into this season.
"It always depends on the younger guys," Smith said. "To be really good at the Quad-A level, your best defensive linemen have to play offensive line and [in camp] is where you find them so you don't have to use them all the time and they don't have to go both ways."
While the Tigers search to fill a few spots along the lines, their skill positions are fairly set with third-year starter Khaleke Hudson (5-10, 210, Sr., RB-LB) ready to carry the load again. Hudson, who had 179 carries for 1,644 yards and 26 total touchdowns in 2014, is projected to play defense in college and has already received more than 30 Football Bowl Subdivision offers.
Though Hudson is receiving the most attention, he's not the only Tigers player with offers on the table.
Looking back at last season when the team dropped its final five games and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009, Peters Township went into its 2015 preparations with one goal in mind.
"We talked the whole offseason about how we wanted to be tougher, more aggressive, more intense, and the intensity looks like it's up," coach Rich Piccinini said. "We looked better on the field and we look like we have more enthusiasm and more intensity."
One of the reasons for optimism is the offensive line, as Peters Township started four sophomores up front at one point last season. With another year under their belts, the junior-laden offensive line led by Michael Burket (6-0, 225) and Logan Stahl (6-3, 255) is better prepared for what opposing defenses will throw at it.
"Last year, being so young, I don't think a lot of guys knew what to expect," Piccinini said. "Now, with a year under their belt, things are starting to go a lot more smoothly."
Upper St. Clair quarterback Jackson Geisler got a baptism by fire at the end of last season.
Because of a concussion to senior Dan Trocano, he was thrust under center to make his first career start in the opening round of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs against North Allegheny. He finished that game 4 of 14 for 21 yards and had seven carries for minus-35 yards in a 24-0 loss to the Tigers.
But this season, Geisler (6-2, 182, Jr.) has had nearly a year to familiarize himself with playing the position at the varsity level and will have the reins to the offense when the Panthers open against Penn Hills.
"The more reps you get, the more experience you have, and it all helps," coach Jim Render said. "It's like going to the bank. You put money away and you know, eventually, it's going to pay off."
Coach Matt Humbert enters his second season after leading the Leopards to a 5-5 record last season and a WPIAL playoff berth. The Leopards tied for third place in the Big Nine Conference but made a quick exit from the playoffs after a 20-0 loss to Franklin Regional in the opening round.
Humbert has 12 starters returning, six on each side of the ball. Luke Durigon (5-8, 166, Sr., RB) and Derek Verkleeren (5-10, 152, Sr., WR-S-K-P) are the top returnees on offense. Durigon has rushed for 1,257 yards on 177 carries over the past two seasons, while Verkleeren has caught 31 passes for 451 yards over the same stretch.
"We want to give Luke a heavy workload this year," Humbert said. "He was in the shadow of [graduate] Anthony Levis [930 yards] last year. This year, he's our feature back."
Phil Taylor (6-2, 170, Sr., QB-WR-CB) and Mike Fine (6-1, 220, Jr., QB) will both take snaps at quarterback. Taylor is a converted receiver who had 11 catches for 83 yards last year. Fine has completed 55 of 107 passes for 769 yards over the past two seasons.
The Colts have struggled in coach Niel Loebig's first two seasons. They had a 1-8 overall record in 2013 and a 2-7 mark last season, finishing near the bottom of the Parkway Conference both years.
"This is my third year, and this senior class has been with me three years," Loebig said. "We made strides last year, but it didn't show in the win column. We took a step forward and want to continue making strides this year. We only lost four players who contributed last year, so we have a large group of kids who either started or saw some time in the starting lineup."
The top returnee is quarterback Jake Collins (6-2, 185, Sr., QB), who completed 51 of 108 passes for 741 yards while rushing for 567 yards on 119 carries.
"Jake is very athletic and very mobile," said Loebig, who played quarterback at South Fayette and Duquesne University. "He has taken a leadership role and worked very hard in the offseason to get ready for his senior year. He will surprise a lot of people this year."
On Aug. 16, a day before the start of practice, new coach Mike Collodi held a huge barbecue at Warrior Stadium.
"We had 200 people," Collodi said. "We had the players and their parents along with the cheerleaders and their parents. I wanted to get the community involved. My father-in-law came in from Cleveland and made 200 pounds of pulled pork. A lot of stuff was donated and many of the parents brought side dishes. It was a great way to jump-start the community. We want to make it fun to be a football player at Elizabeth Forward, and we want the community behind us."
Collodi, a Burrell graduate, comes from a very successful program. He served as an assistant for Tom Loughran at South Park for the past eight years as the team's strength and conditioning coach.
"I learned a lot during my time with coach Loughran," Collodi said. "I was fortunate to be on a coaching staff that celebrated two PIAA titles."
The Rams placed second in the Big Nine Conference last year with 7-1 record. They advanced to the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals before losing to eventual champion Central Valley, finishing the season with a 10-2 record.
"The program took a big step last year," said Nick Milchovich, who returned to coaching last season after a four-year break. "We want to take another step this year."
The Rams' only regular-season loss was to perennial conference champion Thomas Jefferson.
"You'd have to be crazy to say anyone other than Thomas Jefferson," said Milchovich when asked if there is a favorite in the conference. "We don't have to wait long to see how good we are and if we're ready to take that next step. Our first game is against TJ."
Thomas Jefferson has placed among the top four teams in Class AAA 16 of the past 17 years. During this stretch, the Jaguars have won or shared 15 conference titles and placed second the other two years.
Coach Bill Cherpak's squad won the Big Nine Conference title and advanced to the WPIAL semifinals before bowing out against eventual runner-up West Allegheny. The Jaguars finished with an 11-1 overall record.
The Jaguars ran the ball on almost every play last year, as four running backs combined for more than 3,600 yards. Three of the four are back, along with a quarterback who threw the ball only 27 times.
Austin Kemp, who rushed for 1,994 yards, graduated, but Ryan Scanlon (5-11, 180, Sr., TB-CB), Braden Pahanish (6-0, 215, Sr., FB-MLB) and Quinton Hill (5-11, 180, Jr., TB) are back. Hill rushed for 711 yards on 92 carries. Scanlon had 488 yards on 65 carries. Pahanish carried 56 times and had 415 yards.
Jon Miller may be a graduate of Peters Township, but he feels right at home at Trinity.
Miller is the Hillers' new coach. He was hired in March, then received a bonus in June when the district hired him as an English teacher.
"We live near the Meadows [in North Strabane Township] only 10 minutes from the high school," Miller said. "I'll be working at the high school teaching English. I couldn't ask for a better scenario. It's important for a coach to work in the district."
Miller replaced Ryan Coyle, who had a 10-18 record in three seasons, including a 4-5 mark last season. Miller, 38, served as head coach at Moon from 2009-10, going 3-15. He also served as a head coach in Florida for one season before returning to Pennsylvania in 2013. He spent the past two seasons as an assistant at North Hills and Bethel Park.
The Titans earned a fifth consecutive WPIAL playoff berth last season. They tied for third place in the Big Nine Conference and were defeated by Indiana in the opening round of the playoffs. The Titans finished with a 6-4 overall record.
Ray Braszo is hoping for a return trip to the playoffs, but the veteran coach realizes it will be no easy task this season with only six starters back.
"We have a very young team," Braszo said. "We have 60 kids out for the team, and only eight are seniors. We also had a small senior class last year, with only 13 or 14. We have a lot of holes to fill and a lot of inexperienced players stepping in to fill them."
Karlyn Garner (6-2, 180, Sr., QB), Dylan Boytos (6-2, 220, Jr. G-DE) and Darwin Spencer (6-4, 260, Soph., T) are the only starters back on offense. Boytos has moved from center to guard. Garner, a two-year starter, threw for 624 yards and five touchdowns while rushing for 474 and six scores last season.
Second-year coach Donnie Militzer said the Cougars are ready to do something they haven't accomplished since 2004 — make the playoffs.
A big reason for the optimism is the return of Brock Shannon (5-8, 165, Sr., RB), who Militzer said has the potential to be one of the better running backs in the WPIAL. Shannon (701 yards) led the Cougars in rushing last season and scored a team-high 12 touchdowns.
"He's a really dynamic kid. He's one of the best all-around backs I've had," said Militzer, who was previously a head coach at Gateway.
Charleroi returns seven starters on offense. Among them is Trey Douyon (5-9, 170, Sr., WR), the team's second-leading receiver last season with 26 catches. Matt Carr, who set the school single-season passing record last season, graduated, so two sophomores have fought to replace him — Ryan Workman (6-0, 175) and George Lukach (6-2, 210).
When Keystone Oaks coach Greg Perry thinks about the upcoming season, some of the first things that come to mind are his 12 seniors.
"Our seniors have never played in the playoffs," Perry said. "One of our goals is to try to get them there to see what it's like. I think it's a big thing in Western Pennsylvania. We want them to experience it."
The Golden Eagles are aiming for their first playoff berth since 2010. Perry, who had a highly successful run at Seton-LaSalle, took over as coach last season and guided the team to a 3-6 record. The Golden Eagles lost only six seniors, but that included their top passer and rusher.
"We're trying to build off of last season," Perry said. "I think we have made some nice progress."
In one way, McGuffey had a gift and a curse on its hands last season. The gift was James Duchi, who finished his stellar career with more than 4,000 yards rushing. The curse? Well, the Highlanders now face the challenge of replacing him.
The Highlanders are coming off a 7-3 season which saw them place third in the Interstate Conference. The win total was the program's highest since 2009.
Coach Ed Dalton believes this team can be just as good, if not better. Five starters return on both sides of the ball, and Dalton said the depth is the best he has had in his four seasons. Aiding the Highlanders is the fact they play their first four conference games at home. Last season, their first four were on the road.
There are four new starters on the offensive line, but most of the skill players are back. Leading the way are Marcus Czulewicz (6-2, 195, Jr., QB-DB), Shaun Sanders (6-0, 195, Sr., WR-DB) and Nick Haynes (6-2, 205, Sr., WR-DB). Dalton said Czulewicz "has all the tools to be a great one," and added "this is possibly the best receiving group I have ever coached." As for filling Duchi's void, the Highlanders will turn to Adam Townsend (5-11, 180, So., RB-LB) and Spencer Gillispie (5-10, 180, Jr., RB-DE).
History suggests Seton-LaSalle will field another excellent team this season. How the Rebels go about doing it is where history might change its course.
"We're going to be a different-looking Seton-LaSalle team," second-year coach Damon Rosol said.
The biggest change is at quarterback. Seton-LaSalle's long lineage of great quarterbacks is well documented. But most of the top signal callers from the past two decades were classic drop-back passers. This season, the Rebels have a rare dual-threat player at the position who will add a big wrinkle to the offense. Nolan Abbiatici (6-0, 170, Jr., QB-S) gives the Rebels a running threat at the position to go along with a bevy of other offensive playmakers.
Paris Ford (6-1, 170, Jr., WR-DB) is one of the WPIAL's top talents. One recruiting site has Ford ranked among the top 50 juniors in the country. As a sophomore, Ford had 34 receptions for 529 yards and 10 touchdowns. Nico Popa (5-10, 170, Sr., WR-DB), a Pitt baseball recruit, and Bill O'Malley (6-4, 230, Sr., TE-LB) are two other excellent receivers. When the Rebels run the ball, Liam Sweeney (6-2, 205, Sr., FB-LB) and Lionel Deanes (5-6, 170, So., RB-DB) will get the bulk of the carries.
Pat Monroe and his coaching staff begin the season with a roster about as green as the turf and grass they'll play on this fall. Monroe welcomes the challenge of fielding a lineup that has only a handful of returning starters.
"I think this is a unique situation," said Monroe, who is in his eighth season. "It's a great experience for us as coaches. We're enjoying every aspect of it because you have to prepare these guys. None of your opponents are going to wait for you. They're going to have to learn things on the fly."
No current player scored more than one touchdown last season, but Brenden Forrester (5-10, 195, Sr., RB) is the best bet to exceed that total the most. Forrester is also a returning starter at linebacker. The Gladiators lost running back Curtis Moore (914 yards, 15 touchdowns) to graduation. Alex Morgan (6-1, 280, Sr., OT) is back, as are three other returning starters on defense — Ian Naspinski (5-11, 290, Jr., DL), Jonathan Mayernik (6-2, 195, Sr., DB) and Tyler Hinerman (5-11, 175, Jr., DB).
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