Class AA breakdown: Revamped Allegheny Conference among many changes
Highlands coach Sam Albert wants his players to fixate on X's and O's, not A's — as in Class AA instead of AAA.
Realignment led to several changes in Class AA, and Highlands, a 2013 Class AAA quarterfinalist with a bevy of returning skill players, landing in the classification for the first time ranked among the most eyebrow-raising developments.
Evidence suggests a Heinz Field rematch between defending champ South Fayette and perennial title contender Aliquippa is likely, but Highlands wants to burst onto the Class AA scene, and it's not unique in that sense, as former Class A programs Apollo-Ridge and Sto-Rox also aim to make splashes.
Albert had to explain to the Golden Rams that Class AA is no cakewalk.
“In the beginning, when (the new classifications) came out, at first I think they had this notion,” Albert said. “But I think that has since gone away. We're not coming in with anything less than respect for everyone else.”
A whirl of offseason activity occurred in the Allegheny Conference. It added Highlands, Apollo-Ridge and West Shamokin. Valley hired former Greensburg Central Catholic coach William “Muzzy” Colosimo, and Deer Lakes chose former NFL lineman Steve Sciullo to lead its program. And Apollo-Ridge senior wide receiver/cornerback Tre Tipton and Kittanning senior tight end/linebacker Nick Bowers committed to Pitt, while Freeport junior tight end/linebacker Logan Thimons committed to West Virginia.
“(The Allegheny Conference) has definitely changed since we were last in double-A,” said Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba, whose Vikings made the Class A quarterfinals a year ago and last competed in Class AA in 2011. “We've got Division I players all through this conference now, and there are more to come. It's a conference that people will have to look at seriously.”
Not since 2002 has an Allegheny Conference team reached the WPIAL finals — that was Mars, which now competes in Class AAA.
The Century Conference, on the other hand, produced last season's champion. And now it also includes Sto-Rox, a finalist in WPIAL Class A the last three years.
Sto-Rox's spot in Class AA came as a result of a mistake by the school, which provided incorrect enrollment numbers to the PIAA. Class A was Sto-Rox's correct destination.
“We just have to move past that and focus on the future,” coach Jason Ruscitto said. “Double-A is a whole different level of football. Where we're going to see the big difference is in matching up on the offensive and defensive lines.”
While realignment created more regional rivalries in the Allegheny and Century conferences, it spread out the Interstate, which had been a battleground for Greensburg-area bragging rights in recent years. Jeannette and Greensburg Central Catholic dropped down to Class A. Two Washington County teams, Burgettstown and McGuffey, filled the void.
“It's a new Interstate, and it's an unknown right now,” said Mt. Pleasant coach Bo Ruffner, whose Vikings finished the 2013 regular season undefeated but graduated most starters.
In the Beaver County-centric Midwestern Conference, the landscape is fairly unchanged, so regional rivalries will continue to flourish. Even after losing a prolific tandem of running backs, Aliquippa, a WPIAL finalist each of the last six seasons, is the frontrunner.
“Aliquippa returns probably more starters than folks realize,” Beaver coach Jeff Beltz said. “They've won (the conference) enough years in a row that you have to put them right back at the top.”
Said Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac: “I believe that we've developed a good enough program that we're never totally at a loss for guys who can play.
“I'm actually impressed (with the WPIAL finals streak) because that's not easy. And there were a couple times we weren't all that good.”
South Fayette coach Joe Rossi knows plenty about Aliquippa. He knows less about Class AA's newcomers. But he plans to have his Lions ready for all comers.
“We're always doing our research over the offseason and getting some tapes on teams,” Rossi said. “There are some tremendous kids moving into double-A. We've done our homework. It makes it exciting.”