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Area football coaches offer views on WPIAL realignment

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ken eber photography | for the tribune-review
Posing with the WPIAL Class AAA championship trophy at Heinz Field last season are sophomore gridders, from left, Jimmy McCoy (RB/DB), Noah Palmer (TE/DE), Nick Urbanowicz (WR/DB) and Garret Fairman (WR/DB). The TJ football team will compete in Class 4-A in 2016-17, along with conference holdovers Albert Gallatin, Belle Vernon, Laurel Highlands, Ringgold, Trinity, Uniontown and West Mifflin. The only new team on the TJ schedule next season is Greensburg Salem.

The football landscape in Western Pennsylvania has shifted.

After the PIAA expanded to six divisions, the WPIAL followed suit with a similar — and somewhat controversial — realignment plan.

The WPIAL traditionally realigns its football conferences every two years, but this year’s process was complicated by the PIAA’s decision to expand.

The WPIAL surveyed school administrators for feedback, and 63 percent of respondents endorsed full expansion.

With two additional classifications, the WPIAL reduced the number of conferences in each.

Last week, the WPIAL posted its football schedules for the 2016-17 seasons.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

It’s a “Brave New World” for many WPIAL football programs.

Although for the defending WPIAL Class AAA champion Thomas Jefferson football team, it turned out to be “Much Ado About Nothing.”

The Jaguars will compete in Class 4A, along with seven holdovers — Albert Gallatain, Belle Vernon, Laurel Highlands, Ringgold, Trinity, Uniontown and West Mifflin — from their 2015 conference schedule.

The lone new opponent will be Greensburg Salem.

“Our conference looks pretty much the same except for the addition of Greensburg Salem,” said Bill Cherpak, TJ’s veteran head coach and athletic director.

“It is sad to see so many longtime rivalry games be eliminated, but there is nothing we can do about it. (The) PIAA got what they wanted.”

Elizabeth Forward and Yough will be in Class 3A during the 2016-17 seasons.

*****

Three other local schools — Baldwin, Seton-La Salle and Brentwood — will be tackling virtually brand new football schedules in 2016-17.

BALDWIN

Baldwin will participate in Class 5A, and will face Chartiers Valley, Fox Chapel, Hampton, Moon, North Hills, Upper St. Clair, West Allegheny and Woodland Hills in conference action.

All but Upper St. Clair and Woodland Hills are new conference foes.

“From a competitive balance standpoint, I do not think much will change,” Pete Wagner, Baldwin’s head coach, said. “Many people are viewing 5A as one of the more competitive classes. Our new 5A class features a handful of former Quad-A power teams such as USC and Woodland Hills, but also adds a few former 3A squads that have a seat at the table every November. We will have the opportunity to face a handful of new teams, but it’s the WPIAL and you need to be prepared week-in and week-out.”

Gone from the Fighting Highlanders’ conference slate are two longtime South Hills rivals, Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park; along with Peters Township, Canon-McMillan and Penn Hills.

“I think there are pros and cons on both sides of the coin for all coaches at all levels,” Wagner said. “I do not think much has changed for us from the standpoint of the level of competition, but the distance of travel has changed. Four of our five road games are lengthy trips.”

SETON-LA SALLE

Seton-La Salle will compete in Class 3A, and has only McNeilly Road counterpart Keystone Oaks remaining on its schedule from last season.

Along with Keystone Oaks, the Rebels will oppose Apollo-Ridge, Burrell, Deer Lakes, Freeport, Shady Side Academy and Valley in conference play.

“When the realignment took place and we decided to play in 3A, this was the second conference I thought we and KO would be in,” said Damon Rosol, Seton-La Salle’s athletic director/head football coach. “I originally believed we would be with South Park, EF, etc; but am not surprised they stuck us with the (Route) 28 North teams.

“In terms of competition, we are very well-versed with these teams and the brand of football they play. The last two years we have played Highlands in the playoffs and Valley in the regular season, along with seeing many films on other teams (SSA, Burrell, Deer Lakes). All three games were very tight and physical. It is a very good conference and we definitely have our work cut out for us. Freeport was a semifinalist last season, and Apollo-Ridge obviously has a stud with Duane Brown returning. With only two teams guaranteed playoff spots, every week is going to be a dogfight. It should be interesting.”

Now-former conference opponents for the Rebels are South Fayette, Steel Valley, South Park, East Allegheny, South Allegheny, Sto-Rox and Carlynton.

“In regards to the actual realignment process, I am from the school of thought that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Rosol said. “I didn’t see anything major with our district and its policies before the PIAA stepped in and created this classification system.

“Now, obviously, there are a lot of people up in arms with how the 3A playoffs are being handled, and how 1A and 2A (championship games) will not be at Heinz Field. All because, why? The belief that everyone should get a trophy.”

BRENTWOOD

Brentwood will compete in Class 2A with two holdovers — Avonworth (conference) and Vincentian Academy (nonconference) — from its 2015 schedule.

“I think these realignments are nice. I think (the WPIAL) did a good job,” Kevin Kissel, Brentwood’s head coach, said. “A lot of people complain about losing rivalries. You can make new rivalries each year. We can develop some nice rivalries.

“The thing I like most about it is the travel time. The schools are all close in location. I think this will be good for everybody.”

Along with Avonworth and Vincentian Academy, the Spartans will tangle with Carlynton, East Allegheny, Serra Catholic, South Allegheny and Steel Valley on its conference slate, replacing the likes of Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, Bishop Canevin, Fort Cherry, Northgate and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.

“Some of the teams we’ve played (in recent seasons). At one time or another, we’ve played all these teams,” said Kissel, who did point out one scheduling quirk.

“We’re playing at Avonworth again (in 2016). I think this is the fourth year a row we’re playing at Avonworth,” he said.

The Tribune-Review contributed to this story. Ray Fisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or rfisher@tribweb.com.

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