WPIAL heavyweights Woodland Hills, USC meet in Quad Central opener
Not often has a conference title been won or lost opening night, but this could be the exception.
No. 4 Woodland Hills and No. 3 Upper St. Clair, the two highest-ranked teams in the new Quad Central, open their seasons against each other Friday night at USC, a matchup that guarantees an early loss for one contender.
“I don't know that I've ever been involved in a conference game on the opening night,” said USC coach Jim Render, who leads the WPIAL with 354 career victories. “I know I've never had one of this magnitude.”
The two marquee programs have won 10 of the 32 Class AAAA titles since the WPIAL expanded to four classifications. They were the league's runners-up the past two years (Woodland Hills in 2010, and USC in 2011), and their coaches are among the league's most respected. The last time they met was in the 2005 playoffs.
“I think it's a great matchup,” Woodland Hills coach George Novak said. “I always like to play somebody who's really good and has a great reputation. … Unfortunately, it's a conference game, and they're the No. 1-ranked team in the conference.”
Traditionally, the WPIAL's first weekend has been highlighted by nonconference tune-ups, regional rivalries and out-of-district opponents. But this year's realignment and a new way of scheduling ended that.
Twenty-two of the WPIAL's 26 Class AAAA teams will begin the season with a conference game.
A year ago, Woodland Hills played two nonconference opponents before its Quad East opener. USC had four nonconference games to prepare for the Quad West debut.
Not so this year. And with a large number of new starters on both rosters, both are rushing to be ready.
“We always used the first couple games and the first two scrimmages to move people around,” Novak said. “We'd tweak the offense and defense, and see who could play in certain positions. Now you don't have time to do that. You've got to be ready that first game.”
The teams face similar challenges, having both graduated a talented senior class last spring that included their starting quarterbacks, leading rushers and top receivers.
Who's left is talented but mostly inexperienced.
Woodland Hills' top returning rusher, Ron Brown, had just 50 carries in 2011. USC will use a backfield that had even fewer. But the Panthers have quarterback Pete Coughlin, who was more than capable a year ago when pressed into action. The senior started two playoff games when star Dakota Conwell was injured and led USC to an upset over No. 1 Central Catholic.
“Both of us have a lot of guys who didn't get a lot of playing time last year,” Novak said. “We'll see how they develop coming out of the box.”
Render said there's no way to accelerate a team's development any faster than normal. Just because this opener has added importance doesn't mean a team could leave camp any more prepared than usual.
“In reality, compared to the pros and the colleges, our camp is extremely short,” Render said. “I don't know how you could rev up the emphasis because there's so much to do. There are so many things to teach. … We probably won't have as many schemes this week as we will Week 9, but we've prepared hard.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5666.