Class AAAA breakdown: Central Catholic a preseason favorite to dethrone NA
Art Walker needed no reminder that North Allegheny lost all but three starters to graduation from the Tigers team that went undefeated in winning WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA championships.
Apparently, everyone else does.
WPIAL coaches, by and large, still believe North Allegheny should start the season atop the preseason rankings. Given that the Tigers became the first team in WPIAL history to win three consecutive Quad-A titles last fall, it's hard to blame them for feeling that way.
“Well, considering we play them in Week 1, that's absolutely how I feel,” Mt. Lebanon coach Mike Melnyk said. “We're going to play the defending state champions. They've still got the name on the jersey. They still have the coaching staff.
“They blew a lot of people out, so their younger kids got a lot of playing time. They graduated a lot of players, but there's still a mystique. They still know how to win. That's a statement game for us. We'll find out if we're contenders or pretenders.”
Walker also recognizes that, amid a 30-game winning streak against WPIAL foes, there is a perception that the Tigers belong at the top until they are toppled.
“People are saying we should be No. 1. That's fine. It comes with what we've done the last few years,” Walker said. “That's where you want to be. There's pressure that goes along with that. It's tough, but it's what you have to accept.”
The starters returning for North Allegheny are wide receiver/defensive back Elijah Zeise, a Pitt recruit, senior offensive lineman Nick James and junior linebacker Lane Skundrich.
The Tigers must replace two all-state players in quarterback Mack Leftwich (UTEP) and lineman Patrick Kugler (Michigan). But their counterparts don't believe the cupboard is bare.
“As far as NA goes, I won't believe that until I see it on the field,” North Hills coach Pat Carey said. “They're well-coached. It's hard to believe they won't have capable players out there. I would tend to believe NA No. 1 and Central Catholic a close No. 2.”
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, however, sees it differently. The preseason rankings should be based upon how the schools are expected to finish this season, not how they fared last season. That's why Central starts the season as the No. 1 team in the WPIAL Class AAAA.
The Vikings have a ton of talent, starting with a Florida State recruit in senior quarterback J.J. Cosentino. They return starters at almost every skill position and along the lines on offense and defense.
Tailback Luigi Lista-Brinza has rushed for 2,100 career yards. In Shafer Swann, son of Steelers Hall of Famer Lynn, the Vikings have a receiving threat. Niko Thorpe is tough at both fullback and linebacker. And safety Tre Tarpley is a Division I prospect. Central also returns linemen Steve Woods and Zack DeLuca.
“We have a lot of guys that were out there last year returning,” Central coach Terry Totten said. “We have an experienced team coming back. That could be good news or bad news.”
Forgive Totten for having a bitter taste in his mouth after Central's season ended with a 38-0 loss to Upper St. Clair in the WPIAL quarterfinals. The Vikings also endured blowouts by Seneca Valley (34-7) and North Allegheny (28-0) in Quad North Conference play last season.
Central, which finished 8-3, isn't a runaway favorite. Gateway returns a talented defense led by four-star safety Montae Nicholson and Temple recruits Anthony Davis, Delvon Randall and Brennon Thrift. But the Gators have a lot to prove under new coach Donnie Militzer.
Woodland Hills returns offensive stars Harry Randall and Miles Sanders. Upper St. Clair, a semifinalist, has 10 starters back on defense.
And many coaches mention Mt. Lebanon, which boasts one of the state's top recruits in tackle Alex Bookser and a dangerous deep threat in receiver Troy Apke, a Penn State recruit.
“That's interesting,” Melnyk said. “Did they look at how many people we graduated and how we many we have returning? We're going to be playing a lot of young kids. Obviously, we have two D-I football players who are difference makers, but it takes more than two guys.
“I guess that's why they call it preseason rankings.”
That's not just coach talk, said Totten, whose Vikings will start the season No. 1.
“Everybody says it doesn't matter,” Totten said. “Truth is, it doesn't.”