The 2023 WPIAL football season is nearly upon us! Over the next few weeks we will be previewing all 17 conferences in preparation for kickoff on August 25. We are also thrilled to announce that the WPIAL Blitz Show will be back on the YouTube airwaves this season. Subscribe to the Sports Stream Premium channel with new shows dropping each Tuesday during the season!
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With four conferences in 1A, the playoff format is simple. The top four teams from each conference qualify for the postseason. Last year, the Big Seven Conference made a massive statement by sending three teams to the semifinals. The only one that didn’t make the semis was regular season conference champion Laurel, who lost to fellow conference foe Union in the quarterfinals. Union, who had finished 3rd in the regular season, went on to win their first WPIAL title since 1959 and make a run all the way to the State Championship Game. Union returns the bulk of their roster, but so does fellow semi-finalists South Side Beaver and Rochester.
South Side Beaver
The Rams moved down from 2A to 1A last season and put together a strong season, reaching the semifinals for the second time in five years. Their only regular season loss came against conference champions Laurel. The Rams rebounded from that defeat to thump eventual WPIAL Champs Union by aa 35-8 margin. South Side earned a home playoff game by edging Rochester by 2 points in the regular season finale. They beat two Tri-County South teams (California and Mapletown) by a combined 81-9 score before falling to Bishop Canevin in the semifinals. Dual-threat QB Brody Almashy (1127 passing yards, 12 TDs; 642 rushing yards, 14 TDs) returns for his senior season. Joining Almashy in the backfield, leading rusher Ryan Navarra (800 yards, 14 TDs) also returns. South Side’s top four receivers all graduated, but they certainly have enough firepower in the backfield between Almashy, Navarra, and junior Mateja Pavlovich who averaged 7.5 yards per carry to be a strong contender for the conference title. South Side boasted the best defense in the conference, holding opponents to just under 9 points per game. If they can repeat that performance they’ll be right in the mix for the conference title.
Last year’s Union team was one that never backed down from a challenge. When their Week 0 game with Mohawk was cancelled, they scheduled Canton (one of the top-ranked 1A teams in the state). Union battled Canton into the fourth quarter before Canton pulled away, but hanging tight with a top team was a confidence-builder. The Scotties won three in a row before falling to Lawrence County rival Laurel in overtime. But they bounced back, topping Rochester 6-0 on a late fourth quarter touchdown to put themselves in playoff position. A loss to South Side cost them a home playoff game, but they came out of the 11-seed to make a run to the WPIAL final, getting revenge on Laurel and beating Rochester again – both victories coming by 2 points. In the title game, their defense shut down the high-flying defending champs from Bishop Canevin to give Union their first WPIAL title since 1959. The Scotties then topped Port Allegany in a semifinal shootout before falling to Steelton-Highspire in the State Championship. The Scotties bring back most of their team from the State title run and now have the pressure of being listed among the favorites instead of being the dark horse. Dynamic dual-threat QB Braylon Thomas returns after throwing for 1202 yards and 14 TDs and running for 1466 yards and 20 TDs. Mike Gunn (550 rushing yards, 201 receiving yards, 15 total TDs) and Andrew Cartwright (262 yards, 5 TDs) also return to the Scotties backfield. On the outside, leading receivers Dayne Johnke (297 yards, 5 TDs) and Maddox Thompson (257 yards, 5 TDs) both return as well.
For the third straight season, Rochester reached the semifinals but came up just short of a title game appearance. Rochester has made at least the semifinals in 5 of the last 7 years and been to the Championship Game once. While last year’s Rochester team went 5-4 in the regular season, all of their losses were by single-digits. Rochester fell to OLSH by 8, Laurel by 9, Union by 6 and South Side by 2. This landed them as the 14 seed in the playoffs where they drew Eastern Conference Champion GCC who they dispatched in a 36-15 thumping. Rochester followed up by beating Fort Cherry by two scores before falling again to Union by 2 points in a tough semifinal. Leading rusher Antonio Laure (1407 yards, 26 TDs) returns for his junior year. Dom Guido (293 yards, 3 TDs) and Amaree Curry (213 yards, 3 TDs) both return to Rochester’s run-heavy offense. Jayden Norman (434 yards, 2 TDs) took over at quarterback halfway through the year due to an injury and returns for his senior season. Overall, Rochester was a good team that lost some tight games last year and should be poised for another strong campaign with a plethora of backs returning.
The past few years the Spartans have been a very strong regular season team that just hasn’t been able to get over the quarterfinal hump in the playoffs. In 2020 Laurel had a big lead on favored Sto-Rox but wound up losing by 1 point. In 2021 the Spartans won the 2A Midwestern Conference regular season title but fell to eventual WPIAL Champ Serra 6-0 while second place Beaver Falls went on to play in the Championship Game. Last year Laurel moved down to 1A and won their second straight conference title but lost again to the eventual WPIAL Champions, conference rival Union, by just 2 points. Last year’s Laurel team averaged an astounding 44 points per game with their only regular season loss coming in double overtime against Lawrence county rivals Neshannock. Luca Santini attempted a few passes last year as a freshman backup, throwing a touchdown and running for 3 more. Ben Hennon (284 yards, 5 TDs) figures to take over the lead back role after averaging an astounding 12.9 yards per carry in a reserve role. Laurel’s top four receivers all graduated, but for a run-heavy team like the Spartans they should be able to lean on Hennon’s home run hitting abilities to carry them back into the postseason.
In the opening week of the 2021 season, Northgate won a game, ending a 32-game losing streak that stretched back to 2017. The Flames won 3 games that year and 4 games last year, continuing the rebuild of their program. Northgate did struggle defensively at times, allowing 38 points per game and giving up over 45 points in all of their losses. The Flames offense revolves around the dynamic Austin Mitchell who threw for 450 yards and 5 TDs and ran for 778 yards and 10 scores. Mitchell split time at quarterback with Sonteon Layne (559 yards, 5 TDs). Darius Fields (337 yards, 3 TDs) and Donavin Boone will complement the Flames ground game. Look for Anthony Barron to take on a bigger role in the receiving game after Northgate’s leading receiver graduated. Overall, the Flames are still a young team that is building back towards playoff contention.
After back-to-back playoff appearances that included a trip to the semifinals in 2020, Shenango missed the postseason last year. Their only wins came against conference foes Northgate and Summit. Shenango scored 136 points in those two games and just 97 total points in their 8 losses. Junior QB Sam Patton threw for 753 yards and 5 TDs and ran for 382 yards and 8 TDs last year. Patton will need to be the field general for the Wildcats this year if they are going to make a run for the playoffs. Landyn Albertini (153 yards, 1 TD) figures to take on the lead receiver role as he enters his sophomore year with TE Colton Fedrizzi (104 yards, 1 TD) also playing a contributing role.
Summit Academy, the school for adjudicated youth in Butler County, sees complete roster turnover every year. Therefore, it is almost impossible to predict how they will perform from year to year. The purpose of their football program is mostly focused on teaching life lessons to the kids. Summit has made the playoffs twice in school history, an impressive feat considering some players never played football before joining their team. Their most recent playoff appearance came in 2017. Summit won one game last year, beating Springdale in non-conference play.