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“Mr. High School Sports” – Big And Small, The WPIAL (Still) Has It All

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — External perception of high school football in western Pennsylvania may have mellowed over the past couple generations, but the footprint left by the WPIAL on the national canvas is still large.

When MaxPreps released its preseason list of the top ten high school football markets in America, this region was omitted from the conversation in favor of metro areas from Los Angeles to Cincinnati, to Atlanta and New York.

Nevertheless, a few local teams continue to draw significant national attention. Four-time PIAA Class A champion Clairton comes in at No. 2 in MaxPreps’ “Small Schools” National Rankings, while WPIAL Class AAAA quarter-finalist Gateway and runner-up Woodland Hills each made contributor Joe Santoliquito’s Pennsylvania Preseason Fab 5.

The “Bout Dat” Bears enter 2013 boasting a state-record 63-game winning streak, still, by far, the longest active run in the country. Despite major graduation losses, and limited manpower to begin with, they have still carved out their own niche in Class A, and they are still capable of earning a historic sixth consecutive district title.

However, if there were ever a time Clairton was vulnerable and its streak in peril, perhaps that time is now.

Gone is, among other stars, Tyler Boyd, a former Pennsylvania Football News Class A Player of the Year, the heartbeat of the 2012 squad, and one of the most prolific players in recent WPIAL history. Recently retired linemen coach Jim Dumm may be sorely missed, and two-time runner-up Sto-Rox returns a very experienced and athletic team led by dual-threat quarterback Lenny Williams.

Fortunately, for all the youth on this year’s Clairton squad, it should still hold its own in the trenches, which will help the new quarterback, be it junior Ryan Williams or sophomore Aaron Mathews, get comfortable. Plus, the Bears are traditionally able to reload defensively, and that unit needs no more superlatives.

So this is still a great team, but it is also, now, an unproven one.

Woodland Hills, in contrast, has less to prove. The Wolverines, who top the Pennsylvania Football News’ preseason Quad-A rankings, have been to three of the last four WPIAL championships, winning one in 2009.

With the exception of Gateway, it’s been the only team to consistently hang with three-time champ North Allegheny, which hasn’t lost to a district opponent since its season-ending rivalry game with North Hills in 2010. Despite leaving Heinz Field in disappointment, Woody High ended its 2012 season with a No. 9 statewide ranking by MaxPreps and returns a number of solid skill-position players.

“We have a lot of team speed, but we still have a young offensive line, starting two sophomores. They’re big, but they’re sophomores,” head coach George Novak told Santoliquito. “We have eight guys back on defense that started for us. We’ll be in the race.”

You might say, with their talent, the Wolverines are in position to win quite a few races–footraces, that is. If sophomore Miles Sanders, who gained 738 yards and registered 12 touchdowns last year, can stay healthy this time, Woodland Hills will have one of the most effective ground attacks in its classification. Converted quarterback/safety Harry Randall could be a playmaker at just about any spot Novak desires.

Defensively, it’s going to be very tough to move the ball on that team. It’s very deep up front once again, despite some inexperience, and it allowed just 14.5 points per game. Defensive back Chris David, assuming he completes his recovery from an ACL injury, can bolster that unit after making four interceptions last year.

Defense will also be the calling card of Gateway and Donnie Militzer, its new head coach. An ugly economic situation and an uglier political one led Terry Smith to leave for a job at Temple, but Militzer inherits a team that allowed a mere 11.5 points per game in 2012.

Wide receiver/defensive back Montae Nicholson is the top prospect in the Commonwealth according to 247Sports after pulling in 25 passes for 625 yards and nine TD’s as a junior, and he has offers from about 30 FBS schools coast to coast. Safety Anthony Davis led Quad-A with six interceptions last year.

Defense wins championships, but you have to score a little, too. Right now Militizer and the new-look Gators are trying to concoct ways to do that. Two top running backs and quarterback/Arizona commit Tom Woodson have graduated.

Davis’ fellow seniors, Delvon Randall (who, like Davis, will be reunited with Smith next year) and WVU commit Ricky Rogers, can be just as effective as Nicholson when they get open, but first they need to be found.

New quarterback Jimmy Moore doesn’t have a long varsity resume–nor does new tailback Zaihe Regus, for that matter. Woodson and predecessor Rob Kalkstein were well groomed by Smith, so developing that position will be the first big test for Militzer, known primarily as a defensive guru from his days as an assistant at Carlynton and at Washington Jefferson College.

As far as their schedule is concerned, the tests don’t get much bigger than a rematch with N.A. at Newman Stadium in Week 6. The Tigers, who have still earned national and local respect despite losing 30 seniors, ruined homecoming for Gateway last year and, as possible playoff opponents go, could still be a formidable one.

Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if the battle for Foothills Conference supremacy, keeping with tradition, hinges on a visit by McKeesport to Antimarino Stadium in Week 9. Legendary coach George Smith is back to lead those Tigers, he’s bringing his flex-bone offense back with him, and ROOT Sports announced last week it would be on hand to carry that game live.

Click here to view the entire production schedule for “McDonald’s High School Football” on ROOT Sports.

The days of Montana, Marino, and “Iron Mike” may be over, but the talent pool will never be truly dry in the WPIAL. With teams like the Bears, Gators, Wolverines, and Tigers–both of them–continuing to write stories that practically sell themselves, that talent will never go unnoticed.

Get ready, greater Pittsburgh–one of your greatest institutions returns in just one week, and it’s time to get excited.

(Contact me at mpopchock@kdka.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)

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