Mon-Yough football teams begin process of finding answers
High school football in the Mon-Yough area this time of year evokes thoughts of successful WPIAL programs, including five that reached the postseason in 2013.
With teams beginning preseason camps Monday, the first official day of practice allowed by the PIAA, questions abound:
• Where does Woodland Hills fit in Class AAAA with yet another stable full of Division I prospects?
• Can McKeesport shake off a WPIAL quarterfinal loss to Penn-Trafford in George Smith's second year of his second stint as coach?
• Does Class AAA Thomas Jefferson have enough talented players returning to make another WPIAL title run?
• How will Class AAA Elizabeth Forward fare after losing the electrifying tandem of Jaquaun Davidson and Matt Bernadowski?
• Can Class A Clairton start another long winning streak under first-year coach Wayne Wade?
“I've been here coaching for a while now, and we're still doing the same routines,” Wade said. “But we're still having a great time. Guys are getting after it and working hard.”
At Clairton, where losing became rare in recent years, long-time Bears assistant Wade takes over following the departure of Tom Nola to Gateway. He was loving the sounds of pads smacking on the first day of camp, but he said it didn't feel much different than in the past.
Wade served one season as interim coach in 2001 before the arrival of Nola, who led the program to four PIAA and six WPIAL championships during the past eight seasons before leaving. Included was a historic 66-game winning streak that ended last season against Monessen.
But Clairton still managed to go 10-2 and advanced to the WPIAL semifinals before losing to Sto-Rox, 24-19.
“No disrespect, but I'm a different type of a guy than Coach Nola,” said Wade, a former Clairton star who had been the program's defensive coordinator in recent years. “My flavor, my essence is going to be a part of this team, and I think you'll see a different type of team when we get out there this year.”
An experienced group of players returns, including 6-foot-5 junior wide receiver Aaron Mathews, quarterback Ryan Williams and running backs Lamont Wade, a starter last season as a freshman, and Harrison Dreher.
Clairton and Serra Catholic have switched conferences, moving to the Eastern from the Black Hills, respectively. They are among four of 11 teams in the region to make a move. The others are Yough, which shifted to the Class AAA Greater Allegheny from the Class AA Interstate, and Class AA East Allegheny, which was realigned to the Century from the Allegheny.
Elsewhere, George Novak enters his 28th year as coach at Woodland Hills looking to reach a WPIAL championship game for a third consecutive season. Novak predicted possibly six Division I prospects would come out of his senior class, including wide receiver Art Thompkins, who last week announced he was going to Toledo.
Running back Miles Sanders, a 1,000-yard rusher as a sophomore last year, already has decided on Penn State.
With those guys in the lineup a year ago, Woodland Hills made it to a WPIAL championship game for the fourth time in the past five years, losing to Central Catholic, 27-7.
The Wolverines last won a title in 2009.
Smith, who has coached two teams at McKeesport to PIAA championships, led the Tigers to an undefeated regular season and their first playoff victory since 2008 in his return to the sidelines after a three-year absence.
He's searching for players to fill holes throughout the lineup. Gone are a number of key players, including quarterback David Queen and running backs Mikell Moore and Carlos Hudson.
“My whistle's dead,” Smith said before pulling a spare out of his pocket. “We'll get the message across one way or another. There are sophomores here with promise. We'll see if they can step up.”
Running back Khaleke Hudson, who saw steady action last season as a sophomore, is among key returnees for the Tigers.
Thomas Jefferson must replace two-way star Chase Winovich, a Michigan recruit, after the Jaguars rolled to 11 victories before losing their only game, a 23-13 decision to Central Valley in the Class AAA semifinals.
“You never replace players like him. You just try to fill in for them,” coach Bill Cherpak said. “I was pleased with what I saw on the first day. It's time for some other guys to step up.”
Among the returning players for the Jaguars is 1,000-yard rusher Austin Kemp.
At Elizabeth Forward, coach Mike LaDonne's Warriors will have a new look after Davidson and Bernadowski moved on to Pitt.
“We, as coaches, have been asking ourselves how to carry on without that dynamic duo since the end of last season, through the offseason and now,” LaDonne said. “We're expecting certain people to step up. Our goal, as always, is to be a playoff team. How we get there is to be determined.”
Elizabeth Forward reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons last year for the first time since making it three times in a row from 1998-2000. The Warriors (6-4) lost to Mars, 38-21, in the first round.
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.Reach him at email@example.com.