Class AAAA breakdown: Trio of contenders could challenge perennial powers Woodland Hills, Central Catholic
When asked who should be atop the WPIAL Class AAAA rankings, without hesitation several coaches mentioned Central Catholic and Woodland Hills in the same breath as Nos. 1 and 2.
It's no coincidence that they are considered the two dominant teams on a perennial basis. Woodland Hills' nine WPIAL finals appearances the past 15 years is the most in Quad-A, with four titles. Central is second, with five trips to Heinz Field since 2003 and four championships.
Central beat Woodland Hills in the WPIAL final last year, but the Wolverines will begin the season No. 1 in the Tribune-Review rankings. Not surprisingly, the Vikings are No. 2.
Since 1999, Woodland Hills and Central have combined to win eight WPIAL Class AAAA titles and finish runner-up six times. North Allegheny won three consecutive WPIAL titles from 2010-12, but none of the other champions in that span (Mt. Lebanon, McKeesport, Upper St. Clair and Bethel Park) has won more than once.
“Let's be honest: The usual suspects seem to be around every year, as far as cracking the top 5,” Central coach Terry Totten said. “To be lauded as 1-2 is hard, because you know how distractions creep into the good programs. It is somewhat of a challenge. With my team, there's enough talent to be good.”
The question in Quad-A is this: Who can crack the code and get past Central and Woodland Hills in the WPIAL playoffs? There are a trio of programs who believe they are on the verge of joining the elite, and that this could be their year.
Penn-Trafford was the surprise of the postseason last year, beating Penn Hills and McKeesport to reach the semifinals before bowing out to Central, 49-10. The Warriors start the season ranked No. 4.
“It's a matter of getting your kids to believe that you belong there,” Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane said. “Those teams have believed that for a long time. We're trying to get that mentality. … Those schools, those kids really live for football, and that's been entrenched in their programs for a long time. We definitely saw what it takes.”
Seneca Valley went 9-2 last season after going 10-2 in 2012, when it reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion North Allegheny, 47-17. The Raiders return a handful of three-year starters, including quarterback T.J. Holl and two-way lineman Tyler Hudanick.
“The textbook answer would be that every year is different and there's no carryover, but you have to give them credit,” Seneca Valley coach Don Holl said of Central and Woodland Hills.
“As far as cracking it, you have to keep working at it and get your kids to believe it can happen. It's kind of a chicken-or-egg type of thing. You have to win first to believe you can win, and to believe you can win you have to have won. Some schools have won championship games because their kids believe they were going to win.”
Pine-Richland hasn't been to the WPIAL final since 2003, when it won in Class AAA. But Rams second-year coach Eric Kasperowicz returns a 2,000-yard passer in quarterback Ben DiNucci, a 1,000-yard rusher in running back Connor Slomka and top receiver, D'ondre Gastion.
“It's difficult. That's kind of our goal, to come in here and build a program the right way, the way I was brought up,” said Kasperowicz, who won WPIAL and PIAA titles as a player at North Hills. “I preach to the kids all the time that if you do the little things right, the rest will take care of itself. The wins will follow. The more you win, the more tradition is built. Once the tradition is established and you put in a good structure and get support from the administration, then I think you can compete year in and year out.
“That's why it's the same cast of characters, the same four or five teams. You look at the common denominator, and it's the consistency: The consistency of the tradition and the coaching staff.”
All three schools know that it takes time. They just believe that this could be their time, and their turn.
“Someone is going to crack through. It's a tough one,” Holl said. “You've got to get one of those signature wins to get over the hump. You've got to believe you can do it, and sometimes you have to do it to believe you can.”