High school football teams ready to start 2014 season
The 2014 high school football season is here. Three of the four local teams will open up with home games this weekend:
AMBRIDGE at BALDWIN 7:30 p.m., Friday
Baldwin qualified for the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs as a wild card team last season. The Fighting Highlanders, in head coach Pete Wagner's first year at the helm, ended up 4-6 overall.
Ambridge placed seventh in the Class AAA Parkway Conference in 2013, and compiled a 2-7 overall record.
The Bridgers have a new head coach in Dan Bradley, who previously coached at Sto-Rox where he compiled a 23-3 record and reached a pair of WPIAL championship games.
“Ambridge has a new coaching staff, and Coach Bradley has always done a very nice job of getting his playmakers the ball in space,” Wagner said. “Ambridge will come ready to play. We need a good week of preparation, as always, to prepare for the home opener.”
The Fighting Highlanders are led by 16 returning starters this year, including seven on offense and nine on defense.
“My goals and expectations this year are have a winning record and a deep run into the playoffs,” said Baldwin's Matt Dunn, a 6-foot, 220-pound senior offensive/defensive lineman.
Ambridge is coming off a 2013 season that netted just two wins — against Hopewell and Chartiers Valley — both in conference action.
“These kids have come in with great attitudes. They want to compete, and they're giving us the effort. The biggest challenge is geting these kids to believe in themselves,” Bradley said. “We talk about hard work and making sacrifices for the good of the team. These kids are buying into what we're trying to do.”
One of the veterans on the Ambridge roster is senior Stephon McGinnis, who led the Bridgers in passing (449 yards, 3 touchdowns) and rushing (650 yards, 8 touchdowns) last season.
McGinnis will line up primarily as a slot receiver.
“He's an electric player,” Bradley said. “We'll line him up all over the field so we can get him the ball in space.”
Baldwin completed a preseason training camp that included scrimmages against two WPIAL Class AAA playoff teams in 2013 — Ringgold, which finished in third place in the Big Nine Conference last season, and Central Valley, the WPIAL runner-up a year ago.
“It was a tough camp, and our staff put the team through a lot physically and mentally,” Wagner said. “We had the opportunity to face some adversities against two very good opponents.
“The staff is anxious to see how our kids respond as we narrow down some of our concepts and packages moving into a game week.”
RINGGOLD at THOMAS JEFFERSON 7:30 p.m., Friday
Thomas Jefferson is seeking win No. 400 in school history.
The Jaguars, who own a 399-194-7 overall record in football, host Ringgold, a team they have defeated seven consecutive times in the past decade.
Thomas Jefferson is the eight-time defending Big Nine Conference champion, and has won or shared conference titles in 13 of the past 14 years.
The Jaguars rallied past the Rams by a 31-10 margin last season, after trailing at halftime, 10-7.
Ringgold corralled third place in the Big Nine Conference last year, and ended up 7-3 overall after losing to Indiana in the WPIAL first round.
The Rams, who are guided by first-year head coach Nick Milchovich, have high expectations in 2014.
Ringgold senior quarterback Nico Law is a legitimate Division I prospect. Law is a dual-threat talent who threw for 1,494 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 1,110 yards and 15 more scores last season.
“I see a lot of athleticism and speed at the skill positions, but everything is going to start with Nico,” said Milchovich, who also has been a head coach at California, Charleroi and Peters Township. “He's really embraced his role as a leader. He's not an in-your-face type of guy, but he's been leading by example.”
The Rams have plenty of weapons at wide receiver, including seniors Jake Gerard, Brandon Thomas, Mayson Atkinson and Luke Baldesberger.
Junior Chacar Berry, who rushed for 563 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013, takes over at running back.
Defensively, the linebacking corps is a strength for the Rams, with Berry, Connor Garry, Jordan Briscoe and Baldesberger leading a deep group.
Milchovich greeted eight returning starters on offense and seven on defense this season. Senior DE Aaron Szakal is another defensive standout for the Rams.
Thomas Jefferson rang up 24 unanswered second-half points last year against Ringgold, as Austin Kemp sparked the charge with a 156-yard rushing total, on 20 carries, and two scores.
Kemp, a senior running back, racked up 1,101 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground last season.
The Jaguars held Ringgold without a first down in the second half.
TJ advanced to the WPIAL Class AAA semfinals last season, and finished with an 11-1 overall record.
The Jaguars are ranked fourth in Class AAA in the Trib Total Media preseason rankings; Ringgold is rated seventh-best in Class AAA.
BRENTWOOD at VINCENTIAN 7 p.m., Friday
Brentwood advanced to the WPIAL Class A playoffs a year ago, and has been a playoff qualifier for six consecutive years and in seven of the past eight seasons.
The Spartans, who are in the Ohio Valley Conference this season, ended up 6-5 overall in 2013.
Vincentian Academy played an independent schedule in 2013 and compiled a 4-6 overall record.
The Royals defeated Geibel, Bentworth, West Greene and Northgate; and lost to Avella, Mapletown, Carmichaels, Jefferson-Morgan, Frazier and Beth-Center.
After two seasons of competing as an indepedent program, Vincentian is looking forward to its WPIAL schedule.
The Royals are members of the Class A Big Seven Conference, along with Neshannock, Rochester, Riverside, Shenango, South Side Beaver, Union and Western Beaver.
While Vincentian head coach Tom Storino said everyone's goal is to win it all, he is not looking past the next practice.
“I am excited because we have some veteran players, and there is not one superstar here. We have 20 or more really good football players,” Storino said. “We are still young, but we have 22 experienced players.”
Leading the way for the Royals is tight end/linebacker Paul Adams. The emotional leader of the team, according to Storino, is all-conference linebacker Anthony Tomarello, who recorded 90 tackles in 2013.
Dual-threat quarterback Michael Tappe has started 17 of the Royals' 19 games the past two seasons, and is joined by receivers Jake Thomas and David Flemming, running back Anthony Della Valle and fullback Mike Falgione.
“We have been paying attention to the details,” Falgione said. “Coach Storino is focused on the running game, and we are excited to go out and show what we got.”
Vincentian, which has five returning starters on the offensive and defensive lines, will share J.C. Stone Field in North Park with Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic.
Brentwood is ranked sixth in Class A in the Trib Total Media preseason rankings.
SOUTH PARK at SETON-LA SALLE 1 p.m., Saturday
Seton-La Salle placed third in the Century Conference last year — one slot ahead of South Park — and advanced to the WPIAL Class AA quarterfinals.
The Rebels, who defeated South Park in their 2013 regular-season finale, 37-21, finished with an 8-3 overall record.
South Park, meanwhile, lost in the first round of the WPIAL Class AA playoffs, and ended up 5-5 overall.
“South Park is very big football team. Their offensive and defensive lines are probably the largest in (Class) AA,” Damon Rosol, Seton-La Salle's head coach, said. “Their quarterback is both a passing and running threat, along with two nice complementary running backs.
“Defensively, their line occupies blockers, allowing their linebackers to get to the ball and make tackles. Their secondary is a little undersized, but have playmaking ability. It should be a very good game.”
Expectations this year are high at South Park, which advanced to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2005.
“Our expectations are always high,” said head coach Tom Loughran, who is in his 32nd year as the Eagles' field boss. “That's the way we approach it. That's the way the kids are approaching it.”
Senior guard Ryan Podgorski (6-5, 265) returns to anchor an offensive line that is not only huge but experienced with four returning starters.
Podgorski, an all-conference selection in 2013, has scholarship offers from Akron, Bowling Green, Robert Morris and Western Michigan.
“We have some big boys,” said Nick Scholle, South Park's senior quarterback. “They're great. They're the hardest workers at practice. They're great kids, too, and that's not even the most important part; they go 100 percent on the field.”
Seton-La Salle is ranked third in Class AA in the Trib Total Media preseason rankings.
“Our goal for this season is to go 16-0 and win a state title,” said Seton-La Salle's Billy Jackson, a 6-foot, 295-pound senior lineman and third-year starter. “I believe we have the team and the talent to accomplish our goal.
“The strengths of our team this year are going to be the passing offense and our defense. We have great receivers and a great quarterback. Also, we have a line that can give the quarterback time to make an accurate throw. Our defense is going to be strong this year with seven returning starters.”
Adam Ottaviano, a senior tight end/linebacker for the Rebels, agreed.
“I think we have a lot of (team) strengths this year, but most of all is our defensive speed and offensive passing attack,” he said.
The Rebels prepared for the 2014 campaign with preseason scrimmages against Class AAAA Canon-McMillan and Class AAA Montour.
“I thought both of our scrimmages went well, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Rosol said. “Offensively, we left a lot of plays out there; so if we clean up and fix the very correctable mistakes, we will be fine.”
South Park opens the season with critical conference tests against Seton-La Salle, Quaker Valley and South Fayette.
Trib Total Media contributed to this story. Ray Fisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or firstname.lastname@example.org.