The most recent PIAA realignment cycle wrecked havoc on the WPIAL’s largest classification. With Altoona leaving the WPIAL to play in their geographic home of District 6 and four other schools falling below the enrollment cutoff line, there will only be 9 teams in 6A over the next two years. Bethel Park, Peters Twp, Penn Hills, and Shaler all fell below the line and will play in 5A during this cycle. The nine remaining 6A teams are all grouped into one conference. In addition to a round robin of conference opponents, each 6A team will play one game against a 5A opponent. The top 6 teams will make the playoffs with the top two receiving byes to the semifinals. The 6A Championship Game will remain at Heinz Field.
This season, our WPIAL football coverage is sponsored by the fine folks at Taps N’at in Derry. Over the next few weeks we will be previewing every conference in the WPIAL and you can check out the previous previews here.
The Tigers reached the semifinals each of the last two years and look poised to make a run at Heinz Field this season. Defensive Back Joey Porter Jr is one of the top recruits in the state with offers from a number of premier D1 schools. Fellow DB Corey Melzer and lineman Elijah Boyd have some FCS offers while junior lineman Jake Lugg already has an offer from Nebraska. Senior Ben Maenza is the top returning rusher (526 yards, 9 TDs) and could compete with junior Ben Petsche for the starting QB role where his older brother Ethan rushed and threw for over 1000 yards in a dual-threat role two years ago. Melzer and Porter also figure to see some time on offense at receiver.
The defending 6A State Champions are poised for another run through the WPIAL. The Rams graduated 22 seniors and will have to replace a lot of talent, but should have one of the best lines in the state. Tackle Andrew Kristofic has committed to Notre Dame, Guard Michael Kratic has committed to Indiana, and Center Mike Dorundo has some FCS offers. Senior Ben McGregor figures to step into the gigantic shoes of Phil Jurkovec at quarterback and junior Ryan Geyer (273 yards, 1 TD) is the top returning rusher. On defense, Navy-commit LB Tyler King will lead the way for a unit that led 6A in allowing just 13 points per game last season.
The Vikings have reached Heinz Field each of the last 5 seasons, winning the WPIAL title 3 times. After graduating 19 seniors, the next generation is poised to step up. In the backfield, senior Dontre Jones (436 yards, 4 TDs) and junior Kyros Thorpe (289 yards, 3 TDs) figure to be the primary ball-carriers as Central breaks in a new quarterback. Juniors Dom Pieto and Gus Sunseri will likely battle for the job in camp. Whoever takes over under center will have the advantage of returning the team’s top receivers Gavin Thomson (304 yards, 9 TDs). On defense, the Vikings are always stout and have three players with college offers in DB Anthony Costa, DE Brian Dallas, and Columbia-commit DB Dominic Dodson.
The Blue Devils had a record-setting passing offense last year with WR Aidan Cain breaking the WPIAL single-season receptions and receiving yardage marks. Cain and 27 other seniors graduated, but the cupboard is not bare. Rising senior Seth Morgan split time at QB last year because of injury and threw for 1202 yards and 11 TDs. Second-leading receiver Lucas DeCaro (756 yards, 4 TDs) also returns for his senior year. The big news for Mt. Lebanon is the reigniting of their old rivalry against Upper St Clair in their 6A-5A crossover game.
The Kights boasted the third-best defense in 6A last year, holding opponents under 17 points per game. However, it was feast or famine for Norwin as they held 7 teams to two scores or fewer but gave up 35+ three times. Their top players return as they look for more consistency that could lead to their first playoff win since 2007. Junior QB Jack Salopek threw for 1820 yards and 8 TDs last season which earned him an early scholarship offer from Pitt. Rising senior Jayvon Thrift is one of the top safety prospects in the WPIAL with a number of FBS offers. Thrift was also the Knights leading rusher last year with 383 yards and 7 TDs. On the outside, DB/WR Gianni Rizzo led the team in receiving (507 yards, 3 TDs) and has a number of FCS offers as a defensive back. Third-leading rusher Zeke Houser (212 yards, 2 TDs) and third-leading receiver Billy Kerston (228 yards, 3 TDs) also return for their senior seasons.
A year after reaching their first WPIAL Championship Game since 1989, the Raiders came crashing back down to earth. They did rebound from a 1-6 start to win their last 2 and get some momentum heading into 2018. Rising junior Gabe Lawson threw for 1066 yards and 12 TDs last season while adding 375 yards and 6 TDs on the ground. He returns his second-leading receiver Luke Smith (356 yards, 3 TDs) along with two-way player Jake Stebbins (153 yards, 2 TDs). Stebbins is a TE and LB who has offers from Columbia and Cornell on the defensive side of the ball. Jake Mineweaser, Matt Stanger, and Saige Ley are the top returning rushers, all averaging over 5 yards per carry.
The Big Macs are still searching for their first playoff appearance in over a decade. They had a decent offense that averaged over 21 points per game and return both Jon Quinque (967 yards, 10 TDs) and Tre Lewis (711 yards, 6 TDs) who split time at quarterback last year. Leading receiver Drew Engel (582 yards, 6 TDs) also returns and David Cooper figures to take over the lead role in the backfield after averaging 5.8 yards per carry last year. The biggest factor in Canon-Mac’s quest for the playoffs will be improving their defense which allowed 30 points per game last season.
The Golden Tornadoes have not made the playoffs since 2012, their only postseason appearance this century. They will have to replace 17 seniors who graduated from a team that went 3-6 last season. Rising junior Trent Valent will be the top returning rusher after averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Butler figures to be strong in the trenches led by two-way lineman Nate Cornibe who has a scholarship offer from Toledo.
There were high expectations for Hempfield last season that were derailed by an early-season injury to QB Justin Sliwoski. Rising junior Blake Remaley got some playing time in Sliwoski’s absence and will take over under center this year. Unfortunately most of the leading rushers and receivers from last year’s team graduated, leaving Remaley and fellow junior RB Nathan Roby (192 rushing yards, 93 receiving yards, 2 TDs) as the top returning players. After a 1-9 season last year this could be another long rebuilding campaign for the Spartans.