Class A breakdown: Clairton still favored but contenders linger
Over the past couple of years, every team in Class A has said it wanted a shot at Clairton, hoping to be the team to end what is now a state record and nation's-best 63-game winning streak.
Every time an opponent said anything, though, the Bears took it personally and rolled through them en route to a fifth consecutive WPIAL Class A title and fourth straight PIAA championship last season.
This year, even though Clairton graduated all of its top skill-position players, including the WPIAL's all-time leading scorer in Tyler Boyd, no one is about to line up and declare themselves the team that will end the streak.
“They're loaded and they're good and they're not on our schedule, but hopefully we get the chance to play them,” Sto-Rox coach Dan Bradley said. “They're in a great cycle right now and they always play good football.”
Clairton nearly saw its streak come to an end in the 2012 season opener before it pulled out a 22-20 win at Chartiers-Houston, but after that, no team came within 30 points until the Bears shut out Dunmore, 20-0, in the PIAA Class A final at Hersheypark Stadium. A much different scenario is on tap this season. The team won't have an FBS prospect on its roster and won't have as much experience among its players in critical situations.
“We lost a whole team of starters,” Clairton coach Tom Nola said.
On the flipside, there are several teams that could provide a legitimate threat to the streak and the Bears' five-year reign as WPIAL champion, Sto-Rox foremost among them. The Vikings have a Division I prospect in quarterback Lenny Williams and the experience of playing in the WPIAL Class A championship game each of the past two seasons. All together, they might have enough to put an end to the Bears' run.
“We return a great group of guys. We have great skill-position guys, but we lost a lot on our line,” Bradley said. “That's probably the one thing we need to get taken care of if we want to get back to Heinz (Field).”
If Sto-Rox gets its line in order, it could become a favorite in an extremely competitive classification if Clairton falters. The Vikings might have lost two consecutive WPIAL championship games, but Rochester (2010) is the only other team in Class A besides the Bears to play at Heinz Field, which could be an advantage.
There also is the possibility that North Catholic, which made a run to the 2012 semifinals in an underrated Eastern Conference, could emerge as a spoiler once the postseason begins.
Apollo-Ridge, coming off its first playoff appearance since 2007, has the look of a contender behind junior wideout Tre Tipton, who has drawn attention from Penn State and Tennessee among others, after catching 39 passes for 786 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
Of course, there is a possibility the streak could end before Clairton potentially makes it back to Heinz Field for the sixth consecutive year. The Bears play in one of the toughest conferences in the WPIAL and will jump out of the gate with a home date against Chartiers-Houston to begin Black Hills play.
If that weren't enough, Brentwood made huge strides last season after a slow start, going 6-2 in its final eight games with both losses to the Bears. The rivals will play at Clairton on Oct. 4.
Prior to that, the Bears have a home date with Monessen on Sept. 20 that could be a challenge for a team that might still be searching for an identity.
“Losing Boyd is enormous because, in the last 25 years, he might be the best player I've seen,” Monessen coach Andy Pacak said. “They have a great tradition and they have to be the favorite until they lose. It's that simple and there's no way around it.”