WPIAL Class 3A breakdown: Playoff positions at a premium, with Aliquippa seeking 10th straight trip to title game
As the WPIAL considered the realities of the PIAA's switch to six classes before last season, Class 3A provided the biggest conversation — specifically when it came to the postseason.
Eight playoff teams or 16?
Expect the debate to continue, even after the WPIAL decided on eight playoff teams and a championship game at Heinz Field. In fact, the discussion might get even louder.
Consider: One of the top teams in 3A for much of the season — Beaver — missed the playoffs. Another — Valley — missed the postseason after losing a points-differential tiebreaker to South Park. And Beaver Falls went from needing a Week 9 victory to make the playoffs to winning WPIAL and PIAA titles.
“I think last year kind of unfolded how many people thought, which is kind of why there was a little bit of back-and-forth when the decision was being made whether eight or 16 teams should go,” Beaver coach Jeff Beltz said. “I think some people were more vocal than they typically are about the possibility that someone might get left out that really shouldn't get left out.”
While other six-classification talking points — more travel, fallen rivalries — happened in 3A as well, they paled in comparison to the playoff discussion. Because of the smaller field, each conference game took on greater importance, and the battle for the two wild card spots grew fiercer.
“You only control things you can control, and you can't control that,” Valley coach Muzzy Colosimo said. “A 5-4 team got in front of us because of Gardner Points in section play. If that's the case, maybe they should just let you schedule your own exhibition games because I wouldn't mind playing maybe a team from out of state or something like that. I want to figure out a way to gauge our program, and right now you basically jump into the season.”
Beltz said he and his team “took ownership” of missing the playoffs after a 20-15 loss to Beaver Falls in the regular-season finale. After a big early-season victory over Aliquippa, the Bobcats lost a pair of narrow conference games against Central Valley and Beaver Falls.
But count Keystone Oaks coach Greg Perry, whose team lost a high-scoring nonconference battle with Beaver last year before winning the Allegheny Conference, as someone who would like to see more participants in the big dance.
“I think that eight was just not enough,” Perry said, particularly with 23 teams. “I think some of the teams that didn't have an opportunity to get in because of the eight teams making it, ... I think that they're disappointed, and you have a lot of seniors that beat a lot of good football teams and didn't get a chance to go and show what they were worth.”
Derry coach Tim Sweeney, whose team won the Interstate during a school-record season, had the opposite belief.
“Let's call a spade a spade: A 16 seed is never going to beat a 1 seed, and a 15 isn't going to beat a 2,” he said. “We're not talking about the NCAA hoop tournament. There's such a disparity between a 1 seed and a 16 seed, and I think eight teams in all levels would be enough.”
Although the conversation will stay the same, Class 3A should look different this season after the graduation of some of the top players in the WPIAL: Darius Wise at Beaver, Alex Smith at Keystone Oaks, Duane Brown at Apollo-Ridge, Derrell Carter and Donovan Jeter at Beaver Falls and many more. Derry lost several key players from its WPIAL semifinal team, the first in school history. Beaver Falls' Malik Shepherd transferred to Aliquippa and was declared ineligible.
Aliquippa returns the most experienced talent, with four-star recruit Kwantel Raines the latest big name to watch. The Quips will try to return to Heinz Field for the 10th straight season.
“It's hard to (pick) against the team that's been there the last nine years,” Beltz said. “Aliquippa deserves that respect.”
Still, expect plenty of competitiveness to remain.
“I think there are battles every week in all the conferences,” Sweeney said. “If you don't go out and play well, you're gonna get beat. It doesn't matter who you are.”