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Class AA breakdown: Aliquippa leads list of usual suspects that could contend

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Past WPIAL champs

2011: Aliquippa

2010: South Fayette

2009: Greensburg Central Catholic

2008: Aliquippa

2007: Jeannette

2006: Jeannette

2005: South Park

2004: Seton-La Salle

2003: Aliquippa

2002: Seton-La Salle

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Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, 10:12 p.m.

Any discussion about the 2012 WPIAL Class AA title favorite includes a hearty amount of focus on Aliquippa, the defending champion and a finalist the past four seasons.

So the better question is this: What team might stand in the Quips' way?

A handful of programs, perennial powers themselves, have enough depth and talent to challenge Aliquippa, which graduated just eight players from a squad that went 14-1 and beat all but two of its WPIAL opponents by double-digit margins. Coach Mike Zmijanac acknowledged that the Quips, in search of their first back-to-back championships since the late 1980s, can't let their guard down.

“Once you get to the championship game — if you're fortunate enough — there just aren't many mismatches,” said Zmijanac, whose team beat Jeannette, 14-7, for the title and fell to Tyrone, 20-19, in the PIAA semifinals last season.

Count Jeannette among Aliquippa's top challengers again. Two-way star Demetrious Cox graduated and moved on to Michigan State, but the Jayhawks still have seven returning starters on each side of the ball. And they know they came as close as any WPIAL team to knocking off Aliquippa.

“It kind of reminds me of 2006, when we almost won the state championship,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “Those guys came back to the table hungry and won it all. I could see the same thing happening this year. The kids got a taste of the meal, and now they want the whole meal.”

Jeannette first will learn whether it's even the top team in its own conference. The Jayhawks, 2011 semifinalist Greensburg Central Catholic and Mt. Pleasant are expected to clash for the best spots in the Interstate. And Washington, which returns after two years in the Century Conference and has a speedy backfield, is an intriguing addition to the mix.

“We have some nice athletes,” Washington coach Mike Bosnic said. “We have to develop some discipline and get better in a couple other areas before I can consider us among the upper-echelon teams.”

Team additions and subtractions most affected the Century and Allegheny conferences.

Seton-La Salle and South Fayette are front-runners in the Century, which now includes former Class AAA programs South Park and McGuffey.

“I'm not sure moving down to (Class) AA is a big reward for anyone,” said Seton-La Salle coach Greg Perry, whose Rebels reached the semifinals a year ago. “There are just so many strong teams.”

Freeport figures to again vie for the Allegheny Conference title, as the Yellowjackets, co-champions last season, lost just three starters to graduation.

But they're certain to find this season's schedule more challenging, as Burrell, Shady Side Academy and Ford City also will field promising teams; struggling programs West Shamokin and Apollo-Ridge moved to Class A; Kittanning and Valley dropped back into the conference after two years in Class AAA; and East Allegheny moved over from the Interstate.

“It'll be very difficult for everybody,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said. “I don't see anybody taking off and running away with (the conference) this year.”

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