Class AAA: Hopewell one of many talented hopefuls
WPIAL Class AAA features more than its share of spectacular players and top-caliber teams.
The star poised to shine the brightest is Hopewell senior running back Rushel Shell. He's on pace to set the WPIAL's career rushing record, and Hopewell could be the favorite to reach the title game, but Vikings coach Dave Vestal offered no guarantees.
"People say because you have Rushel Shell, you should win it all, but that's not the case," he said. "We have to be able to execute as a team. Last year, we let some games slip away late, and now we have to find ways to win when things are on the line."
There are plenty of other teams with the potential to play in December at Heinz Field.
Defending champion Central Valley won the Class AAA championship as a first-year school last season. Many members of that team are back, including junior receiver Robert Foster.
Central Valley beat Montour, 24-7, in that championship game. Could the Warriors make it two in a row?
"The biggest question right now is whether or not we can get out of our conference," coach Mark Lyons said. "We were fortunate to get some big wins late in the season and, when the playoffs start, everybody has a clean slate. But it's a process. You can't take the elevator directly to the top floor. You have to go floor to floor, and it's a process we have to go through."
Montour has plenty of motivation to take the next step, and the Spartans have the talent to make it happen. Quarterback Dillon Buechel and running back Julian Durden — both seniors — give Montour a lethal combination. Add senior receiver Devin Wilson into the mix, and the Spartans should be a team playing late into the season.
Thomas Jefferson is a perennial contender and likely will be the team to beat in the Southern Eight Conference. The Jaguars lost some talent to graduation, but Bill Cherpak's teams are known for reloading, not rebuilding. With quarterback Dom Presto back for his senior season, Thomas Jefferson could be in the WPIAL title conversation as usual.
"I expect us to be in contention for the title," coach Bill Cherpak said. "Our skill players are returning, and we have high expectations. As far as Triple-A goes, there are a lot of good players, and not having injuries will be the deciding factor for everybody."
In the Greater Allegheny Conference, Knoch will try to overtake Mars as the champion. In the Keystone Conference, Franklin Regional, behind junior running back Dane Brown, will try to eclipse Ringgold for the top spot.
Class AAA is full of talent, so the teams that make it to Heinz Field will have overcome some great opponents and impressive players to get there.
In the past 10 years, five different teams have climbed to the top of the mountain and won the WPIAL Class AAA championship. Central Valley (2010), Pine-Richland (2003), Hopewell (2002) and Franklin Regional (2005) have all enjoyed being champions once in the past decade while West Allegheny (2001 and 2009) has two titles in that time frame.
But since 2001, the team enjoying the most success has been Thomas Jefferson, winning a WPIAL Class AAA title in 2004, then going on a three-year run of championships from 2006-08.
Cherpak is hopeful that his team can return to glory this season, but knows that year after year, there are always great challenges that face even the best teams. He's excited to see what his team can accomplish, and is looking forward to what should be a season full of fantastic Friday nights in Class AAA.
"There are a lot of good teams," Cherpak said, "and I think it's going to be a really good season."
Hopewell, senior, running back
Has rushed for 6,766 yards and needs just 881 more to break the WPIAL career record set by Fort Cherry's Mike Vernillo in 1999.
Montour, senior, running back
Rushed for 2,033 yards and 25 touchdowns on 263 carries last season.
Central Valley, junior, wide receiver
Hauled in 27 passes for 592 yards and seven touchdowns last year.
Montour, senior, quarterback
Threw for 2,221 yards and 24 touchdowns, completing 158 of 262 attempts last season.
Greensburg Salem, senior, running back
Rushed for 1,607 yards and 18 touchdowns on 227 carries last year.
Chartiers Valley at Thomas Jefferson
A midseason battle likely to decide the Southern Eight.
Central Valley at Montour
Rematch of last year's WPIAL title game.
Hopewell at Central Valley
Lots of offensive talent on display in this late-season clash.
2010 record in parentheses:
1. Montour (12-1): Making a return trip to Heinz Field will be the goal for the 18 returning starters who were upset there a year ago.
2. Central Valley (10-4)
3. Thomas Jefferson (10-2)
4. Franklin Regional (7-3)
5. Hopewell (6-5)
6. Greensburg Salem (7-3)
7. Ringgold (9-1)
8. Knoch (9-2)
9. West Allegheny (7-4)
10. Blackhawk (5-4)