The calendar flipped to August last week and my work calendar today said "vacation over."
Although it's not officially high school football season yet, why not get started? This week, Varisty Blog will look at the top teams in every WPIAL class, as well as hit a few practices. Next week, it's "Going Camping" time.
But before we get started by taking a look at Class A, a reminder that high school football practices officially start as early as Wednesday. This year, the PIAA has mandated that every team in the state go through three "heat acclimatization practices" before they can start practice Aug. 12 with full pads and full contact. Teams can start the three practices Wednesday, with players in shoulder pads, helmets and shorts. So you will be seeing teams in football gear starting in two days.
But for now, a look at Class A of the WPIAL:
Class A seems to have pretty good depth this year, in terms of quality teams. There are teams worthy of a top five ranking that aren't listed below, like Brentwood and Monessen. Avonworth is worth watching, as well as a few others. But you can't have ties in rankings. So here are my top five (remember, the official Post-Gazette rankings could be different by the time they are published in late August).
What? Rochester No. 5 to start the season? I don't remember the last time the Rams were ranked so low in the preseason. Looking at Rochester's losses to graduation, you could even make the point that the Rams maybe shouldn't be in the top five. But no way am I discounting a Gene Matsook-coached team just because it is inexperienced. Rochester just has too much tradition not to be in the top five.
The quarterback, leading rushers and many more graduated.
Neshannock in the top five in the preseason? I know it sounds crazy. I've never seen it before. But the Lancers became one of the darlings of WPIAL football last year. After many seasons of futility, Neshannock finished 10-2 last year and made it to the WPIAL semifinals before losing to Clairton. A number of top players return from that team, including QB Ernie Burkes (2,362 yards combined running and passing) and running back Eli Owens (1,268 yards rushing). Tight end Steven Jeffries, offensive-defensive lineman Ralph DoVidio and linebacker Gianni Oliva were first-team all-conference selections a year ago.
3. NORTH CATHOLIC
The Trojans are set to move into a new school in Wexford next year, but they could have a memorable final season at the top of Troy Hill. A number of top players return from last year's team that finished 9-3 and lost to Sto-Rox in the WPIAL semifinals.
P.J. Fulmore (pictured) returns after rushing for 1,820 yards last year as a sophomore. Quarterback Ryan Kirby also is back. But those aren't the only top players returning. Tight end Ronnie Meder, offensive lineman Dylan Grieco, defensive linemen Ryan Long and Jarred Fragapane, and linebacker Josh Churchin are all back. No other team in the Eastern Conference has as many first-team all-conference players returning.
A third consecutive trip to the WPIAL title game appears possible for the Vikings. Heck, a WPIAL title might be possible.
The Vikings return a number of players from last year's team that lost to Clairton in the title game for the second consecutive year. Seven starters return on defense.
On offense, Sto-Rox has one of the most potent passing-running threats in the WPIAL in quarterback Lenny Williams (pictured in last year's WPIAL final). He threw for 2,237 yards last season, rushed for 1,189 and made the Post-Gazette Fabulous 22. He should be looking good, especially with that load of gear I saw him buying from the Nike outlet store Saturday at the Tanger outlets in Washington (ha ha). Not to be a fashion critic.
Back to on the field matters. Williams could have a big season. He has five scholarship offers from Division I schools as an "athlete."
Also back is senior running back-linebacker Brendan Blair, who is a force on offense and defense. Blair ran for 799 yards last season. Receiver Javelle Kirkland is another talented player.
Yes, the Bears lost so many key skill-position players from last year's team. And yes, no one can fill the shoes of all-everything Tyler Boyd. But c'mon. When you win 63 games in a row, five WPIAL titles and four PIAA titles in a row, don't you stay No. 1 until you are beaten?
Last year, the Bears had to develop inexperienced linemen. They did. This year, Clairton is pretty well set on the lines but must develop skill-position players. We'll see. Brentwood and Monessen will be formidable Black Hills Conference challengers to the nation's longest winning streak. And Clairton won't be as strong as the past couple years. But don't be overly surprised if coach Tom Nola (pictured) and the Bears go through another regular season undefeated and the streak reaches 72.
Wayne Wade is back as defensive coordinator, which is huge for the Bears. He thought of not returning. He believes Clairton should be pretty strong again defensively. Jojuan Bray, Vance Gibson, Israel Melvin and Will Hampton return on the lines. Bray was a first-team all-conference lineman last year as a junior.
There are big holes to fill on offense, though. Aaron Matthews and Ryan Williams are battling for the quarterback job. The Bears also must develop some running backs. A player to watch at running back is a freshman. Lamont Wade is a 5-10, 175-pound ninth-grader and Wayne Wade's nephew.
NEXT UP LATER THIS WEEK: Class AA