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Class AAA breakdown: Will the Parkway Conference celebrate again at Heinz Field?

| Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, 10:12 p.m.

Might this be the year a team from outside the Parkway Conference celebrates at Heinz Field?

It hasn't happened since 2008.

Three consecutive WPIAL Class AAA champions have traveled Interstate 376 West, but that streak could end should Franklin Regional, Thomas Jefferson or somebody else rise up this November. Parkway power Central Valley and Montour this season like they did 2011, as talented title contenders, but most coaches agree that Triple-A has no overwhelming favorite.

“There are some teams outside the Parkway that are going to be pretty good,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said. “There's not that one or two dominant teams out there as there have been the past couple years. That opens it up a little bit more.”

Thomas Jefferson won three straight WPIAL titles from 2006-08, but the Parkway's success since has been undeniable. The conference's title-winning streak began in 2009, when a Mike Caputo-led West Allegheny team beat Rushel Shell and Hopewell at Heinz Field. A year later, Central Valley beat Montour. Last year, Montour beat Knoch, the first non-Parkway finalist since 2008.

During that three-year span, Parkway teams were 19-5 in the playoffs against opponents from other conferences. But two of those losses came last year, when Knoch beat West Allegheny, and Franklin Regional beat Hopewell.

“I really don't like when people stereotype the Parkway and the rest of the conferences,” said Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta, whose Panthers reached last year's WPIAL semifinals. “I think we showed that we're able to compete.”

However, Botta believes schedule strength has played a role in the Parkway's success. With typically five or six talented teams each season, only those who improve throughout the season can succeed. Consider Montour, which had two regular-season losses expose flaws that were fixed before November.

Compare that with Franklin Regional's experience a year ago in the Keystone Conference. The Panthers were 9-0 in the regular season with eight victories by four or more touchdowns. Among them were scores of 38-0, 55-0, 63-0 and 70-6.

A dominant team? Yes. An improving team? Not necessarily.

“My starters were coming out of the game in the third quarter,” Botta said. “Sometimes in the second quarter. We weren't ready for tough, physical games until we got to the playoffs.”

But circumstances are changing.The WPIAL's new Class AAA alignment combines four conferences into three and could improve competition, Botta said. Franklin Regional was relocated to the extra-concentrated Greater Allegheny, now home to six playoff teams from a season ago. The Big 9 also has six but lost Chartiers Valley to the Parkway.

“A lot of people say if you play better teams, you become a better football team,” Botta said. “I think that's true.”

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