Natural rivalries, top-tier talent highlight realigned Allegheny Conference
The stars have aligned. Or realigned, to be more exact.
With the WPIAL fine-tuning its conferences and moving teams around like old furniture in a new house, four of the Alle-Kiski Valley's top players get to go head-to-head in a conference overrun with local teams.
The block party is about to begin.
The Class AA Allegheny Conference now comes fully loaded with shorter road trips, more fan-friendly matchups and natural rivalries, but don't forget those four stars who will call the local cul-de-sac home this season.
Two of them are Pitt recruits. Both created WPIAL-wide buzz in the offseason, drawing attention to little-recruited areas that are just as football-hungry as the main-road teams.
The area's top two returning pass-catchers, Apollo-Ridge senior wide receiver/defensive back Tre Tipton and Kittanning senior receiver/linebacker Nick Bowers will pogo for position against each other in Week 3 when Apollo-Ridge plays host to Kittanning. The future Panthers teammates can't wait to compete and trade highlights.
“We have a ton of respect for each other,” Tipton said. “It's going to be fun.”
Tipton and Bowers never have faced each other in football, only basketball. Preparation for their first-ever football clash already is under way.
Kittanning went 8-0 last season to take the Allegheny, so the Wildcats hold the title until they're dethroned.
“We can't just think we'll come in and go undefeated again,” Bowers said. “We can't look past teams.
“I've watched tape (on Tipton). He makes smooth moves and cuts. I know I'll be preparing hard when we play them and be doing his film study.”
The 6-foot-2, 170-pound Tipton knows Bowers (6-4, 245) will offer him a unique matchup and will do all he can to make him back down.
“We know each other,” Tipton said. “We both like to compete. I like how he plays to the ball. He's so big, he boxes you out.”
Both players averaged 16 yards per catch last season. Bowers caught 54 passes for 856 yards and eight touchdowns, while Tipton had 44 grabs for 697 yards and 14 scores.
Apollo-Ridge, one of three newcomers to the Allegheny, rejoins Class AA, moving up after reaching the Class A quarterfinals last fall.
The bus driver isn't complaining, but the head coach isn't taking his eyes off the road.
“We don't have to go to Pittsburgh any more,” Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba said. “But our first five games are against five playoff teams (from last season). There are some great games, but week-to-week, I can't say it's going to be very fun.”
The other big mover and shaker is Highlands, which was bounced from Class AAA due to dwindling enrollment numbers and now sits alongside Apollo-Ridge, Burrell, Deer Lakes, Ford City, Freeport, Kittanning, Shady Side Academy, Valley and West Shamokin.
“We're not excited just about the competition level,” Highlands coach Sam Albert said. “We're excited we don't have to make the trips to (places like) Hollidaysburg, Ringgold, Derry and Greensburg Salem. When we went to Hollidaysburg, our bus broke down twice and we got there late. Now, if we break down on the way to Freeport, we could walk.
“More than anything, this is what high school football should be about. Every game is a rivalry game.”
If Highlands is to make a smooth transition to its new surroundings and continue to get invited to the annual playoff pairings meeting, it will need continued production from star No. 3: senior running back Elijah Jackson, a speedster who has Division I potential on offense and defense.
Jackson, however, can't run from unguarded expectations.
“We definitely want to be the team to beat,” said Jackson, who led the A-K Valley in rushing last year with 1,287 yards and 11 TDs. “But we know it won't be easy and that we have to step it up. With all the rivalries around here now, there are going to be some tough games.”
Tipton can flat out play. Bowers is a Mack truck to try to defend. And Jackson is here one second, gone the next. But don't rest on the playmaker at Valley, star No. 4. Junior D'Aundre Johnson didn't get the nickname “Smash” from destroying pumpkins.
“Trust me: you're going to be hearing a lot about D'Aundre Johnson in the near future,” new Valley coach Muzzy Colosimo said.
Johnson delivered a bone-jarring hit against Burrell last season and became a viable target at wideout as the season progressed.
“That hit was all adrenaline,” Johnson said. “To be honest, and I didn't tell many people this, but after that hit I was in pain. I had to shake it off. I had people criticizing me saying it was illegal, but it wasn't. He was gaining ground on my running back, and I had to stop him.”
Freeport can't be overlooked because it also has a Division I recruit in linebacker Logan Thimons, who verbally committed to West Virginia. Add him to the other four, and the Allegheny has its own Fab 5. Thimons has been referred to as a “late bloomer,” but opponents will be well aware of his presence.
“I don't know about the rest of (Class AA), but ours is going to be a great conference,” Thimons said. “I have family at Highlands. It's going to be an exciting year.”
Highlands and Valley will renew their “Battle for the Bridge” game, which always gets local fans buzzing. But Jackson knows Week 8 can wait.
“I'm friends with D'Aundre and Tre,” he said. “We want to beat Valley and Apollo-Ridge. You always want to beat your friends and rub it in their face.”
The influx of new faces could help change the playoff fortunes of the conference. Recently, they have not been good. Teams from the Allegheny Conference are 0-8 the past two years. Last season, the conference's four playoff teams were outscored 197-103 in the first round.
While the Allegheny's standout players are the headliners to start the season, there are other storylines of note in a conference loaded with backyard brawls.
• In Week 9, Kittanning and Ford City will play for the final time — in the 100th anniversary of their storied rivalry — before their pending merger hatches the Armstrong Riverhawks in 2015-16. Ford City leads the all-time series 37-36-1.
• New coaches take over at Valley and Deer Lakes. The man simply known as “Muzzy” — as in William “Muzzy” Colosimo — takes the reins at Valley after becoming a fixture at Greensburg Central Catholic for 17 years. And at Deer Lakes, it's former NFL lineman Steve Sciullo — who used to block for Peyton Manning — calling the shots in eager-to-improve Lancerland.
• While several of its teams still play on grass fields — much of the WPIAL has gone to green carpet — the Allegheny Conference has joined the 21st Century in another area, going to 7 p.m. kickoffs.