Class AAA breakdown: With perennial contender Gateway joining Greater Allegheny, trend of championship Parkway teams could be...
West Allegheny coach Bob Palko doesn't deny that Gateway dropping down from Quad-A and shifting into the WPIAL Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference has improved the classification's depth.
“It's well-documented how good Gateway is, how many good athletes they have and the reputation of (first-year coach) Tom Nola and what he did at Clairton,” Palko said.
Yet Palko, whose Indians have claimed the past two Class AAA titles and will aim to three-peat for the first time since Thomas Jefferson (2006-08), isn't ready to anoint the Greater Allegheny as the new Parkway.
“At times, the Parkway has been really good,” Palko said. “That doesn't mean there aren't other good teams that could play in it. It's just different.”
Sure, the Greater Allegheny will boast a top three that consists of preseason favorite Mars, Gateway and 2013 Class AAA semifinalist Franklin Regional. Even four of the remaining six have enjoyed seven-win seasons since 2011.
But the Parkway has no equal when it comes to winning, especially in the playoffs. Over the past five years, Parkway teams have claimed five WPIAL Class AAA titles, took eight of 10 possible slots in the championship game and 10 of 20 spots in the semifinals.
“Everybody talks about the Parkway Conference, how tough it is and how prepared you have to be,” said Central Valley coach Mark Lyons, whose Warriors play in the Parkway. “That's still going to be the case, but I think now you have a great conference in Mars, Knoch, Franklin Regional and Gateway.”
How does Lyons see the Greater Allegheny stacking up with the Parkway?
“You know what? We're going to find out this year,” Lyons said. “I really think those conferences are comparable right now.”
West Allegheny returns quarterback Andrew Koester, running back Chayse Dillon and leading tackler Armond Dellovade from a group that outscored its opponents 34.6-11.0.
The team the Indians beat in the WPIAL final, Central Valley, boasts the area's top recruit in running back/wide receiver/defensive back Jordan Whitehead, who this summer picked up an offer from Alabama. Senior quarterback John George also returns after throwing for 612 yards and seven touchdowns in relief of injured starter Nate Climo.
The most intrigue surrounds Gateway, which is 91-28 with four appearances in the Class AAAA title game over the past decade, the majority of those wins coming under former coach Terry Smith.
But the Gators lost quarterback Jimmy Moore (2,351 yards, fourth in the WPIAL), along with his three NCAA Division I-bound targets: Montae Nicholson (Michigan State), Delvon Randall (Temple) and Anthony Davis (Temple).
Seniors Alex McCallum, a tight end/defensive end, and fullback/linebacker Dylan Smith will play larger roles. Same for senior split end/safety John Horner and junior running back Adam White.
“This is their third system and third head coach in three years,” said Nola, referencing the Donnie Militzer-coached 2013 campaign. “This is the third system they've had to learn, so we have to learn to catch onto that and come together as a cohesive unit.”
Mars must replace its quarterback and top three receivers, but the Planets will lean heavily on 225-pound running back Josh Schultheis, who rushed for 1,645 yards and 24 touchdowns.
“We can run it all day long and probably win some games,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. “But it's tough to win in the playoffs if you can't throw the ball.”
Franklin Regional has Maryland recruit Brett Zanotto (157 tackles) back at running back and linebacker.
Count Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta among those who think the Greater Allegheny got better quickly with the addition of Gateway.
“Talking about the power in the Parkway and what's now happening in the Greater Allegheny with Gateway, and Mars is loaded,” Botta said. “Us, Hampton, Indiana, there's not a weak sister in it. I think it's going to be very balanced this year.”
Thomas Jefferson remains one of Class AAA's elite programs but could be challenged in the Big 9 by Ringgold and West Mifflin.