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Predictions: WPIAL Class AA playoff teams

Written by Mike White on .

One in a daily series on predicting playoff teams in each conference:

TODAY: CLASS AA

Century Conference

1. South Fayette - The defending WPIAL and PIAA champion Lions have reigning P-G Player of the Year Brett BrumbaughBrett Brumbaugh (pictured), a senior QB who likely will break the WPIAL passing record this season. Graduation definitely left some holes, but there is still plenty of talent. Besides Brumbaugh, FB-LB J.J. Walker, TE Logan Sharp and lineman Anthony Davidson were all-conference. Watch for RB Hunter Hayes.

2. Seton-LaSalle - Don't be surprised if the Rebels and first-year coach Damon Rosol make a run at South Fayette. Tyler Perone is back at QB and WR Danzel McKinley-Lewis has committed to Toledo. A number of other starters also return.

3. Quaker Valley - QB Dane Jackson is one of the best dual-threat QBs in Class AA.

4. Steel Valley - DeWayne Murray ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman.

Allegheny Conference

1. Highlands - A move down from Class AAA should help the Rams. Five starters return on offense and six on defense. Nick Bowers

2. Kittanning - The defending conference champion Wildcats feature WR-TE-LB Nick Bowers (pictured). Plus the "Boy Toy" is back - 5-6 quarterback Braydon Toy.

3. Shady Side Academy.

4. Freeport

Midwestern Conference

1. Aliquippa - No more Dravon Henry. No more Terry Swanson. But these are still the Quips. Say no more. QB Darrien Fields is back as well as RB-LB Kazeon Pugh.

2. Beaver Falls - The Tigers lost a truckload of seniors, but still will finish near the top of the conference.

3. Beaver

4. New Brighton

Interstate Conference

1. Washington - This conference was weakened a little by Greensburg Central Catholic and Jeannette dropping to Class A. The Little Prexies return five starters on offense and defense, including QB Jonathan Spina.

2. McGuffey - This could be one of McGuffey's best seasons in a while as eight starters return on both offense and defense. QB Nate Whipkey is back and James Duchi is a 1,000-yard rusher.

3. Mount Pleasant - Only three starters return on both offense and defense, but the playoffs still are in the Vikings' future.

4. Charleroi - The Cougars are under new coach Donnie Militzer and could be playoff bound.

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Predictions: WPIAL Class A playoff teams

Written by Mike White on .

This is first in a daily series on predicting what teams will make the playoffs in each conference.

Today: WPIAL Class A

TRI-COUNTY SOUTH

1. Beth-Center - This conference struggles big time in the playoffs (0-12 the past three seasons). Maybe Beth-Center can get a win this year. The Bulldogs have lost only one conference game the past three seasons and are an easy pick to finish first again. 

2. Carmichaels

3. California - Back in the Tri-County South after a few years in the Black Hills.

4. Frazier

EASTERN

Jeannette and Greensburg Central Catholic moved down from Class AA and the WPIAL put them in the Eastern, Wayne Wademaking this conference extremely top heavy.

1. Clairton - Another WPIAL title could be in the future for the Bears under Wayne Wade (pictured), who goes from defensive coordinator to head coach. Aaron Matthews, who has some Division I college offers as a junior, has moved from QB to receiver. 

2. Greensburg Central Catholic - Tommy Pellis showed some promise last year as a sophomore QB.

3. Jeannette - Julian Batts returns at QB.

4. Monessen

BLACK HILLS

1. Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic - Running back-slotback P.J. Fulmore (pictured) is probably the preseason choice as Class A player of the year. Adam Sharlow returns at QB after a torn ACL forced him to miss the second half of last season when the Trojans won WPIAL and PIAA titles and finished 16-0.

2. Avonworth - The Antelopes' only two losses a year ago were close calls to North Catholic.

3. Fort Cherry - Running back Koltan Kobrys (2,000-yard rusher last year) has graduated, but the Rangers are still a team to watch after moving from the Eastern Conference.

4. Brentwood

BIG SEVEN

1. Neshannock - Two of the top three teams in this conference a year ago are now in Class AA - Sto-Rox and Laurel. That weakens this conference, but Riverside moved down from Class AA. Neshannock lost a number of key players, but maybe the Lancers have established a winning tradition the past two years. Senior Eli Owens rushed for 1,469 yards last season.

2. Western Beaver - Hunter Roknich was a first-team all-conference running back a year ago.

3. Rochester - They won't be as good as their glory days, but the Rams should rebound from last year.

4. Riverside

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Goin' Campin': Seton-LaSalle and coach talking state championship

Written by Mike White on .

Goin' Campin' is Varsity Blog's series that hits the road to give you notes, quotes, anecdotes and everything else from district football preseason camps.

TODAY'S STOP: SETON-LaSALLE

Before we get to football talk on Goin' Campin's tour, first we bring you a wonderful practical joke at Seton-LaSalle today.

Seton-LaSalle carPlayers park their cars down the hill near the practice field. The photo on the left shows how senior receiver-defensive back Ryan Sago truly got "post"-erized while he was at practice. Or at least his truck did. There were post-it notes all over it.

After practice, first-year Seton-LaSalle coach Damon Rosol was talking with quarterback Tyler Perone and receiver Danzel McKinley-Lewis while they all looked at the car.

"One of the girls soccer players did it," Perone said with a laugh.

Rosol said, "So does that mean she likes him?"

"No," Perone said. "He parked too close to her yesterday and she couldn't get out so she did this."

Tremendous, I say. So football players, watch where you park. And watch those girls soccer  players.

Talking big

Rosol isn't shy about what he wants his team to do this season. He's not afraid to bring up lofty goals, even though this is his first season since taking for Greg Perry, who went across McNeilly Rd. to become Keystone Oaks' coach. The players also don't try to hide such great expectations.

When the entire team huddles together and then "breaks down" they say together "state champs!"

Damon Rosol hatRosol, 39, displays his goals on ... his hat. He wears a green hat with "GET 16" on it. Translation: Go 16-0 and win a state championship. Even the players wear T-shirts with "GET 16" on them.

Confident group, wouldn't you say?

"The state championship is our goal," said Rosol, a former Seton-LaSalle player and assistant coach who spent the past nine seasons as Montour's offensive coordinator under Lou Cerro. "What are we supposed to do, say 'lose in the semifinals?'

"We respect everyone. But like I said to these kids from day one. Embrace the expectations. Don't run away from them. This is Seton-LaSalle. If I would've went to another school, we'd  probably break and say 'conference champs.' But the last time I was here, we were 33-5 in the last three years. Why shouldn't we think big here?"

But Seton-LaSalle is in the same conference as South Fayette, who went 16-0 last season.

There is reason to be optimistic, though. Perry left Rosol a top team. The Rebels have seven starters returning on bothTyler Perone shirt offense and defense. Among the returning starters is quarterback Tyler Perone, who completed 169 of 184 for 2,326 yards and 24 touchdowns last year. (Perone is pictured sporting one of those "Get 16" shirts).

"I think he's a Division I quarterback," said Rosol. "Old Dominion and schools like that are looking at him. I think he's come to the realization that Pitt and Penn State are out. But there are a lot of [Division I-AA) schools out there for him. He's going to make some school happy."

Danzel McKinley-LewisDanzel McKinley-Lewis is a Divison I recruit who returns at receiver. McKinley-Lewis, a 6-foot, 180-pound senior, has already verbally committed to Toledo. McKinley-Lewis is a speedy receiver who caught 40 passes a year ago.

One of the other top returnees is tight end-linebacker Adam Ottaviano, a 6-0, 220-pound senior who is called by Rosol "the heart and soul of the team."

Ricky Mellick was the team's leading rusher last year with close to 400 yards.

A promising newcomer is Paris Ford, who transferred from Central Catholic. He is a 6-2, 170-pound sophomore who started on Central Catholic's basketball team as a freshman. Ford has a good chance to start at defensive back.

"He looks as promising as you can look for a sophomore," said Rosol.

Ford should also have a big impact on Seton-LaSalle's basketball team.

More on Seton-LaSalle

**** Liam Sweeney is a returning starter at fullback and linebacker. He is a 6-1, 210-pound junior and the son of former Seton-LaSalle (South Hills Catholic) star lineman Jim Sweeney. The elder Sweeney had an excellent career at Pitt and played in the NFL for a long time.Bill Gallagher

**** Rosol has five assistant coaches who are graduates of Seton-LaSalle (or the old South Hills Catholic). One of them is Bill Gallagher. It seems strange to see Gallagher (pictured) not wearing a blue Perry shirt or coat. He was Perry's coach in the City League for a number of years before resigning after last season.

"The kids love him," Rosol said.

Gallagher coaches the lines.

**** Former Seton-LaSalle quarterback Shawn Lamonde is another assistant coach as well as Perone's father, Mike.

**** One guy's top five teams in WPIAL Class AA:

1. South Fayette

2. Aliquippa

3. Seton-LaSalle

4. Washington

5. Beaver Falls

**** And we end with Seton-LaSalle "breaking down." Did they say "State Champs?"

Seton-LaSalle team helmets

 

 

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Goin' Campin': Even 88-year-old mother of coach helps at West Allegheny preseason camp

Written by Mike White on .

Goin' Campin' is Varsity Blog's series that hits the road to give you notes, quotes, anecdotes and everything else from district football preseason camps.

I won't profess to know how every WPIAL team operates its preseason training camp. But over the decades, I've seen a lot of training camps - and must say West Allegheny's is one of a kind.

The camp is so well managed and organized. That's impressive. But that's not what makes this camp different. How how many teams have boosters cook lunch with homemade food every day for the players and staff? Good food, too. And how many teams have an 88-year-old mother Croutonsof the head coach helping to cook lunch? Laverne Palko, mother of head coach Bob Palko, has been helping with training camp lunches for a few years, and there she was today, in the kitchen of the cafeteria, slicing Italian bread and making her famous homemade croutons (pictured).

"People eat them like potato chips," said Bob Palko. 

Laverne and Bob Palko are pictured below.

Laverne Palko

And how many teams have people who have no affiliation with the team drive from the other side of the state every year and spend two weeks helping with lunch and whatever else at camp?

But that's what you have at West Allegheny. Coach Bob Palko creates an atmosphere that isn't found at many places. Booster club members cook lunch every day in the school cafeteria. And this isn't bad cafeteria food. It's as good as a restaurant. You might have anything from ham and scalloped potatoes, to today's meatball sandwich and potato soup (few sports writers turn down free food). And don't forget those Mama Palko croutons for the salad.

Also at the camp, high school girl students are managers and help with trainers at camp. Pre-teenage sons of assistant coaches sometimes spend two weeks at West Allegheny, acting as managers or just wanting to be around Dad and the team. Heck, Tyler and Luke Palko (Bob's sons) were fixtures at the camp as tykes before they played at West Allegheny.

"Dad what's a jagoff," said the young son of offensive coordinator Dan Marshall as they left the cafeteria today.

Too funny. I couldn't hear Marshall's answer.

"It really is like a family here," said defensive coordinator Bryan Cornell, an assistant for 17 years. "I'm not just saying that. It's true. It's really all because of Bob."

Cornell's young son was on the sideline during morning practice and ate lunch next to his Dad.

Palko has been doing camp this way for years and it must work, right? Is he at legendary status yet? The guy has won seven WPIAL titles in 19 years as coach. No other WPIAL coach has won seven outright.

And check this out: Palko and his program are so highly thought of by 65-year-old Bill Hanczar and his wife, Deb, that they drive from Williamsport every year at this time, stay with family in the West Allegheny district, and help cook food and serve lunch to the team.

Crazy? Well Bill Hanczar is a 1967 West Allegheny graduate who comes to some games every year. But he has no child or relative on the team.

"Coach Palko knew that I was coming to games, so he invited me to get closer to things if I wanted," said Bill Hanczar. "I've been coming and helping at lunches and hanging out at camp for 10 years now."Bill from West Allegheny

But his wife didn't go to West Allegheny and she also helps out. (Bill is pictured taking lunch trays from players today).

"We just love it," said Bill Hanczar. "I pretty much stay on the cleanup side and she stays on the kitchen side. It really is just a family here."

Then there is Laverne Palko, smiling while she slices the bread for those croutons. So what makes an 88-year-old spend August afternoons for two weeks, working in a cafeteria for high school football players? Shouldn't she be playing bridge or watching game shows?

"My husband has been gone for nine years," said Laverne Palko. "He used to come to all the practices. It's for the kids and I want to support my son. He's all about the kids, and that means so am I."

The blonde boys

There are a lot of white heads at West Allegheny.

Per tradition, many of the players dyed their hair blonde before the start of preseason camp. Coach Palko is pictured below addressing the blonde bombers

Golden heads at West A

Championship caliber - again

West Allegheny has won two consecutive WPIAL titles and has to be considered a favorite for a third. A number of key players return. Running back-defensive back Chayse Dillon is one of the best players in Class AAA. Quarterback Andrew Koester already has committed to St. Francis, Pa. Tight end-linebacker Sean Orsini is a force and Armand Dellovade returns at linebacker and running back.

Plus, there are some other good-looking athletes and linemen who might not have seen loads of varsity time in the past. It should be just another in a long line of top teams at West Allegheny.

"I think we've all improved as a team," Koester said. "Our goals are the same, but we're thinking a little bigger this year. Obviously, Erie Prep has beaten us the last two years [in the state playoffs]. We'd like to go far enough to get another chance at them."

Here is one guy's Class AAA preseason rankings.

1. West Allegheny

2. Thomas Jefferson

3. Mars

4. Central Valley

5. Gateway

More West Allegheny

**** Watch 6-4, 270-pound lineman Derek Klontz. Only a junior with a lot of potential.

**** West Allegheny ran out of the wildcat formation with great success the past few years. You wonder if we will see it as much this year because of Koester, who is more of a dropback QB.

Highpod**** Many high school teams now film their practices, especially in the preseason. West Allegheny also films all of its practices - from two angles. From the side and the end zone. Palko always seems to be up on technology and has new "toys." The film from the end zone is taken from a "HI-POD." It is a camera on a long pole (pictured to the left).

Actually, Palko said his team has used the "HI-POD" for three seasons. I'm sure some other WPIAL teams have it, but I just don't remember seeing it a lot.

**** Koester (6-4, 190) has committed to St. Francis. He also is a talented basketball player and he said he could possibly have a Andrew Koesterchance to join St. Francis' basketball team at some point. But as Koester said, "It definitely would be difficult with the time commitment to do both. Football is my priority. But if it's possible, it would be fun to try."

**** So far this week, it has been unusually cool for preseason football practice. But the West Allegheny "blonde bombers" cool off in ice tubs after practice. (picture below). Actually, it's just to ice down sore muscles.

West A bath

And finally ... 

Transfer news

Shawndale Jones, a basketball guard who averaged 18 points a game last season as a sophomore at North Hills, has left the school and enrolled at Kiski School, a prep school in Saltsburg. Jones "reclassified" and is a sophomore again at Kiski. He also will play football at Kiski School.

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Goin' Campin' stops: P-R, QV, NH and other notes

Written by Mike White on .

Goin' Campin' is Varsity Blog's series that hits the road to give you notes, quotes, anecdotes and everything else from district football preseason camps.

Before we get to our stops today on Goin' Campin', let's look at the photo below and play a quick game of "Who's The Better Coach?"

Holzer and Tomlin

No, silly. Old singer Frankie Avalon didn't show up at Steeler camp. You might have thought that, right? It's none other than Upper St. Clair basketball coach Danny Holzer rubbing elbows at Steelers camp with Mike Tomlin. 

Hey, Holzer does have three WPIAL titles.

OK, enough about basketball coaches. Onto Goin' Campin' talk from Tuesday.

First stop: Pine-Richland

OK, I haven't been to a Pine-Richland practice in years. I think since Neil Walker was a senior. I haven't had reason to go. But this could be Pine-Richland's best team since Walker was a senior and helped the Rams win a WPIAL title.

The first thing a newcomer to Pine-Richland practice has to notice is the sound in the stadium. Walking up to the place, music was blaring. This isn't unusual, though. Coach Eric Kasperowicz says his team plays music every practice. He started playing the tunes last season.

"We do it the whole practice," Kasperowicz said. "Just for distractions. We're an up-tempo, no-huddle team. We do all our coaching from film afterward. We're just trying to create as many distractions as we can to get used to it."

The Eagles were playing when I walked in. I know, a little old. Who picks the music?

"My one assistant coach," said Kasperowicz. "We have some classic. Some rock. I'm a big country guy so I have some Luke Bryan in there. We've got a nice mix. My daughter wanted that, what's it called, Iggy song?"

You mean "Fancy?" 

"The kids like it," Kasperowicz said.

Great expectations

Pine-Richland is thinking big this year because 10 starters return on offense and eight on defense. Some believe they will definitely challenge for a Northern Eight Conference championship. But Pine-Richland has never finished higher than fourth in the conference since moving from Class AAA to AAAA in 2008. Many are taking the Rams seriously this season, but are they indeed one of the elite teams in the conference? They will have to finally prove it on the field to get the respect they want.

"I think it's a big year for the program," said Kasperowicz. "Since we've been in Quad-A, we've had a tough time. Now we have a nice core group of kids. I think it's a good year to make some waves. These kids are coachable. They've worked their butts off. But this such a tough league."

Below, Kasperowicz addresses the team after practice. With that hat, he's doing his best Gilligan imitation from "Gilligan's Island."

Eric Kasperowicz hat

 

Skill of the Rams

Just going by statistics and experience, Pine-Richland has to have one of the best offenses in the WPIAL. Ten starters return from an offense that averaged 32 points a game. 

Ben DiNucciQuarterback Ben DiNucci (pictured) returns after finishing fourth in the WPIAL in passing yardage during the regular season. He completed 142 of 200 for 1,890 yards. Receiver D'ondre Gaston was second in the WPIAL in receptions with 53. Running back Connor Slomka rushed for 1,095 yards. DiNucci already has committed to Pennsylvania of the Ivy League and Slomka will attend West Point. He originally was going to play lacrosse at Ohio State, but changed his mind.

"Obviously, I'm biased," said Kasperowicz. "But I think we've got the best quarterback, and probably the best running back and probably the best receiver in Quad-A. Gaston is the one who is overlooked. As a sophomore, he had zero receptions. Then look at him last year. The improvement he made is unbelievable."

Help from Dad

There is a man on the sideline at Pine-Richland practices doing anything and everything. He knows the names and sizes seemingly of every player. Eric Kasperowicz calls him "Dad." He is Mark Kasperowicz.

"Call him a sideline assistant," said Eric. "He retired from work two years ago. It's nice to have him around."

Dad said with a laugh, "I'm a water boy, but I do everything from water to fixing a helmet. I enjoy it."

Next stop: Quaker Valley

The Quakers made more noise last year than they have in decades. They finished 8-3 overall and won a WPIAL playoff game. With some talented skill-position players returning, optimism is in the air at Quaker Valley, er, Cornell.

Quaker Valley is having the first three days of preseason camp at Cornell High School. The players sleep in the auditorium at Cornell. Odd? Not really if you know the background.

Cornell folded its football program after the 2011 season. Cornell students can play for Quaker Valley Dane Jacksonunder a cooperative sponsorship. This year, 12 Quaker Valley players are from Cornell, including star quarterback-defensive back Dane Jackson (pictured). He already has accepted a scholarship from Pitt to play defensive back. Receivers Blake Lipke and Zacchaeus Humphrey are two other Cornell players expected to make big contributions.

"Usually, we have a three day camp at Quaker Valley where the kids stay there," said Quaker Valley coach John Tortorea. "We wanted to go away this year. So this worked out. We are away without going away. It is a wonderful thing for us to come here to Cornell and do this. It gives the kids over here a chance to be in their own community, at their own school, using their own facilities. It gives these [Cornell] kids their own feel."

Numbers game

So there is a high school team in Frank Letteri Stadium in Coraopolis again, if only for a few days. And it's a big team, at least for Quaker Valley. The Quakers have 57 players now and might dress 65.

"I think we had 40 my first year here,"  said Tortorea, who is in his fourth season.

Offensive punch

Quaker Valley must replace all of its linemen, but Tortorea likes his skill-position players. One of them is receiver Chris Conlan, the son of former Penn State and NFL linebacker Shane Conlan.

"Richmond and William & Mary offered. He'll probably decide between those two," Tortorea said of Conlan.

As for the offense?

"Every skill-position player is back," said Tortorea. "We have Aaron Cunningham and Trewon Marshall back at running back. Everyone talks about Dane and Chris, but those two are the ones that make us go."

Last stop: North Hills

Actually, this was my last stop Monday, but we saved it for today. Practice at Martorelli Stadium. To me there is not a better place in the WPIAL to watch a game, as far as setting and atmosphere. 

(Photo is of two North Hills players taking a coach "sled riding."North Hills sleds

As for the North Hills team, it seems a number of coaches believe North Hills could be the sleeper in the Northern Eight. There is Central Catholic and although North Allegheny lost a lot of key players, you know the Tigers will still be good. Seneca Valley and Pine-Richland have a lot of experienced players, but don't sleep on North Hills. Second-year coach Pat Carey seems to be trying to hang low and surprise some teams.

Two keys to North Hills: Can the Indians develop a quality running back, and the foot of Jake Bruder?

North Hills has lacked that explosive running back in a number of recent seasons. As for Bruder, he is back for his second season as a starter. But he played in only a few games last year before sustaining a broken ankle, which ended his season.

Bruder showed promise last season and is now back. He runs well and is a capable thrower. His play will be vital to the Indians' success. Kindhal Taylor, who moved from receiver to quarterback to take over for Bruder last season, is back at receiver.

 

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