This will be a completely different season of high school football than anyone has ever experienced. Recently, in response to the Governor’s recommendation, the PIAA decided to push back the start of the season by two weeks to engage in further discussions regarding a safe return to play for fall sports. Even though there is uncertainty about this season of high school football, there are many coaches and players who have worked their tails off to get ready for this season, and we felt their efforts deserved to be highlighted. Therefore, we are rolling ahead with our 2020 WPIAL Season Previews. This year, our WPIAL coverage is sponsored by the Small Player Big Play App, which provides schools the opportunity to fundraise by live-streaming their games and events. Check out their Twitter page and get the app for free on Apple or Andriod devices.
The Big Eight Conference has been dominated by Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon over the last decade. However, a new challenger enters the fray this season with McKeesport and their vaunted triple-option attack moving down from 5A to 4A. This conference was originally slated for eight teams, but only six will compete for a playoff spot. West Mifflin is under a one-year postseason ban by the WPIAL for playing with an ineligible player last year. Uniontown, who has the longest active losing streak in the WPIAL, decided to cancel fall sports.
The playoff format in 4A will be dependent on the State Tournament. If the PIAA hosts a state tournament, eight teams will make the 4A playoffs. If the PIAA does not host a state tournament, only four teams will make the playoffs. In an 8-team bracket, the top two from each conference plus two Wild Card third place teams would make the playoffs. In a 4-team bracket, only the conference champions and one Wild Card would make the playoffs. Be sure to keep tabs on our WPIAL Football ELO Rankings and WPIAL Standings Page throughout the season. Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish.
WPIAL ELO Rank (4A): 1
WPIAL ELO Rank (Overall): 6
The Jaguars are the defending WPIAL and State Champions and have reached Heinz Field each of the last 5 seasons. Their only title game defeat in that time was in 2018 against South Fayette. Last year’s team was utterly dominant, beating all of their WPIAL opponents by at least 25 points. Their closest game was a 28-13 victory over long-time foes Cathedral Prep in the State Quarterfinals. While some of their key starters graduated, TJ has talented players waiting in the wings to step into a bigger role in the offense. Jake Pugh and Joey Lekse both saw a few snaps in cleanup duty at QB last season and one will replace 3-year starter Shane Stump. They will have the benefit of returning two talented receivers in Ian Hansen (738 yards, 10 TDs) and Youngstown State-commit Preston Zandier (476 yards, 3 TDs). In the backfield, DeRon VanBibber (290 yards, 8 TDs) and Isaac Eckley (290 yards, 3 TDs) both return and figure to take on bigger roles. The Jaguars are always strong in the trenches and this years lines will be anchored by Jake Krawczyk. The saying in Jefferson Hills is they don’t rebuild they reload, and that will be true again for this year’s team who should be considered among the favorites to challenge for the 4A title.
WPIAL ELO Rank (4A): 2
WPIAL ELO Rank (Overall): 9
McKeesport is the one new addition to the Big Eight Conference this year, moving down from 5A. The Tigers have reached the playoffs in 22 straight seasons and made at least the semifinals in 4 of the last 6 years. Their wishbone triple-option attack is difficult to defend and will make them a strong challenger to Thomas Jefferson both for the conference title and for the 4A crown. Four of their top five rushers graduated, leaving Asaad Robinson (225 yards, 5 TDs) to take on the feature back role in the offense. Robinson ran for an absurd 9 yards per carry last season, and has the talent to put together a massive season. He will have the benefit of running behind Colin Lyons, who has garnered some interest from FCS schools. McKeesport is one of the rarest passing teams in the WPIAL (averaging fewer than 5 attempts per game last season). Even with 13 seniors graduating, the Tigers have the depth of talent to make a run at the WPIAL title in 4A this season.
WPIAL ELO Rank (4A): 3
WPIAL ELO Rank (Overall): 18
After two years of losing in the semifinals, Belle Vernon broke through last year and reached the WPIAL Championship for the first time since 1999. The Leopards fell to rival Thomas Jefferson and saw 18 seniors graduate, including their QB, RB, and leading receivers. However, they bring back an excellent playmaker in Devin Whitlock. After starring as a freshman at Monessen, Whitlock transferred to Belle Vernon last year where he ran for 507 yards and added 291 receiving yards and scored 10 TDs. Whitlock figures to be the focal point of the offense this season and has the talent to play in any role. Senior RB Dan Anden (288 yards, 4 TDs) and junior Ryan Hamer (181 yards, 1 TD) both averaged over 8.5 yards per carry last season and will take on a leading role in Belle Vernon’s offensive attack. The Leopards have also garnered a reputation for a stout defense, and held all teams not named “Thomas Jefferson” to an average under 10 points per game last season.
WPIAL ELO Rank (4A): 18
WPIAL ELO Rank (Overall): 45
The Mustangs got off to a rough start to 2019 where they lost 6 in a row, giving up at least 42 points in every outing. To their credit, they did not bury their heads and scored two victories once the calendar flipped to October, beating Ringgold 42-13 and Indiana 42-6 then suffering a narrow defeat to Trinity in the season finale. Laurel Highlands might be one of the biggest stories in Fayette County for years to come as rising sophomore Rodney Gallagher already has offers from Pitt, WVU, and Virginia Tech. Last year as a freshman he led the team in receiving (491 yars), was second in rushing (392 yards) and scored a team-high 10 TDs. He also led the Laurel Highlands basketball team to a WPIAL title, defeating Mars by a point in the 5A Championship Game. In addition to his football offers, he has offers from Pitt and Illinois in basketball. Laurel Highlands returns a number of other skilled players in RB ShiNeill Thomas (228 yards, 5 TDs) and WR Christian Burchick (203 yards). Rising junior Daniel Carney attempted a handful of passes in reserve duty last season and figures to step into the starting QB role. Two-way lineman Tanner Slavic has also made some noise, garnering an offer from William & Mary. If Laurel Highlands can shore up their defense, they will challenge for a playoff spot this season.
WPIAL ELO Rank (4A): 10
WPIAL ELO Rank (Overall): 35
It was a tumultuous 2019 season for West Mifflin. The Titans brought in highly-successful Steel Valley coach Rod Steele who led the team to their 10th straight playoff bearth. However, late in the season the strings unraveled as a number of players were disciplined and benched for the season finale against Thomas Jefferson and the first round playoff game against South Fayette. The chaos continued after the season as it was discovered West Mifflin had used an ineligible player (a 5th-year senior) and was forced to forfeit their 5 victories. Additionally, the WPIAL levied a one-year postseason ban on the Titans, making them ineligible for the 2020 playoffs. The Titans will still be worth watching this season as Pitt-commit DE Nahki Johnson is one of the top pass rushers in the WPIAL.
WPIAL ELO Rank (4A): 16
WPIAL ELO Rank (Overall): 43
Trinity narrowly lost their season-opener against Greensburg Salem, which wound up being a deciding factor in the Hillers missing out on the playoffs. Leading rusher Micah Finley returns for his senior season after scoring a team-high 5 TDs last year. Finley will form a backfield tandem with Drew Cain who scored twice as a sophomore last season. In order to make a run at the playoffs this year, Trinity will need to improve an offense that averaged just 16 points per game.
WPIAL ELO Rank (4A): 20
WPIAL ELO Rank (Overall): 49
After a winless 2018 campaign, Ringgold broke their losing streak with a Week 5 victory over Beaver where they kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired. That was the sole bright spot on the season for the Rams. Ringgold had the second-lowest scoring offense (7.9 points per game) and the third-worst defense (41.1 points per game) in 4A last season. They have been building experience with their young players as rising junior Braydon Fine should take on a featured role in the offense this season.
Uniontown school district opted to not participate in fall contact sports due to the COVID pandemic. The Red Raiders finished 2019 with a WPIAL-leading 32 game losing streak. That ranks second statewide behind York County Tech who has lost 34 straight games.