WPIAL football conference preview: Class 4A Northwest Nine
South Fayette (10-1 overall, 8-0 Northwest Nine in 2016)
South Fayette rode a high-powered offense to an undefeated regular season and Northwest Nine title last season before falling to New Castle, 51-43, in the WPIAL quarterfinals. The field general of that passing attack returns — senior Drew Saxton has thrown for 4,619 yards and 61 touchdowns the past two seasons. Senior TE/LB Noah Plack-Tallerico, a Delaware recruit, also returns after earning first-team all-conference honors at both positions. Two-way lineman Ray Eldridge is a Richmond recruit.
Mars (8-3, 7-1)
Junior running back Garrett Reinke returns after rushing for 964 yards and nine touchdowns and earning first-team all-conference honors. Senior OL/LB Anthony Grieco was first-team all-conference, as well.
New Castle (8-5, 6-2)
Guided by a slew of talented athletes, 11-time champion New Castle reached the WPIAL final for the first time since 1998. Gone are QB Geno Smith and WR Garrett Farah, but all-around talent Marcus Hooker returns to lead the offense.
Blackhawk (5-4, 4-4)
Blackhawk was hit hard by graduation, but the Cougars return junior lineman Chris DeLuca, who was honorable mention all-conference.
Montour (4-6, 4-4)
Expectations are high for the Spartans, who return QB/DB Kavon Mormon, who has offers from Robert Morris, Cornell and Dayton, as well as RB/LB Brayden Jones, who has offers from Western Michigan and RMU. WR Ronnie Stevenson has committed to Temple, and R.J. Deshantz also is a skill player likely to play in college.
Indiana (4-5, 3-5)
Junior Luke Thomas returns after completing 108 of 206 passes for 1,435 yards and 17 TDs. Four offensive linemen also return — seniors Brant Newman, Alex Donahue and Brent Johnson and junior Liam McDaniel.
Highlands (3-6, 2-6)
Five players — seniors Lonnie Long, Ryan Signorella and Jayce Whitfield, along with junior Seth Cohen and sophomore Luke Cochran — are battling for the starting QB position. Cohen threw for 226 yards and two TDs last season. Senior Jermaine Jett returns at running back after gaining 368 yards.
Knoch (2-7, 2-6)
Knoch returns plenty on both sides of the ball but will miss graduated QB Mac Christy, who led the team in passing and rushing. Senior Jake Herrit will step under center.
Ambridge (0-9, 0-8)
Ambridge, which played shorthanded last season after offseason transfers decimated the program, will look to snap a 10-game losing streak. The Bridgers were outscored 437-26.
Players to watch
New Castle, sr., WR/DB
The brother of Colts first-round pick Malik Hooker, Marcus committed to Ohio State in July. A game-changer on both sides of the ball, the three-star recruit ran for 789 yards and had 17 catches for 363 yards for a total of 17 scores last season.
Montour, sr., WR
A transfer from West Allegheny, Lipford had 46 catches for 790 yards and eight TDs last season. He has FCS offers.
South Fayette, sr., QB
Saxton threw for 2,638 yards and 30 TDs last season and had 1,981 and 31 as a sophomore.
Games to watch
9.15 Knoch at Highlands
A pair of first-year head coaches — Frank Whalen (Knoch) and Dom Girardi (Highlands) — will look for an early edge in the standings.
10.6 South Fayette at New Castle
These teams split a pair of games last season, with New Castle winning in the quarterfinals in a shootout. They combined for 144 points in the meetings.
10.21 Blackhawk at Montour
Montour earned a 38-14 decision last season to qualify for the playoffs, and kept Blackhawk out.
• South Fayette had nine players named first-team all-conference last season, including graduated offensive MVP Geavonie Love.
• Except for a 35-14 loss to South Fayette last season, Mars outscored Northwest Nine opponents 247-78.
— Bill Hartlep