Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas just shakes his head when asked about the level of competition his team faces every season in the WPIAL Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference.
“There’s never any easy games,” he says. “Never.”
Sure, there are times when the Indians face a struggling opponent in a conference game, but those games rarely go easily because of the rivalry factor that exists in the league, which has had many of the same teams over the years despite the biennial WPIAL realignment.
Here’s an alphabetical look at the teams the Indians will compete against this season in the tough Greater Allegheny Conference, with last year’s overall and conference record in parentheses.
FRANKLIN REGIONAL (8-3, 6-2): A lot of coaches would be concerned if they had only five returning starters on their team, but when you’re Greg Botta, and you’re the coach of the Franklin Regional Panthers, those concerns aren’t so bad.
That’s because Franklin Regional has been to the WPIAL playoffs an impressive nine consecutive years.
So the Panthers are one of those lucky programs that uses the phrase “reload” rather than “rebuild.”
To fill the void left by the graduation of such players as quarterback Nico Lodovico and running back Dane Brown, Botta has moved the team’s leading receiver, Charan Singh, to quarterback and penciled in Paul Emanuele and Brett Zanotto at tailback to carry the load.
Adam Mihoci, a senior lineman, anchors the defense, which features eight new starters.
On paper, Franklin Regional doesn’t look like a contender, but considering the program’s recent history, another trip to the playoffs wouldn’t be a surprise.
GREENSBURG SALEM (2-7, 2-6): After seven seasons as an assistant coach with the Lions, Dave Keefer was hired over the winter after Casey Cavanaugh resigned.
So it’s not like Keefer is a new face trying to do a new thing. Instead, he’s trying to get the Lions back to being competitive, which Greensburg Salem was from 2008 to 2011, when it made the playoffs four straight years. But after moving from the traditionally weak Keystone Conference to the Greater Allegheny last season, the Lions nosedived and ended up near the bottom of the standings.
The good news for the Lions is that they have several key starters coming back, including running back Dom McKinley, wide receiver Simeon Stevens and tight end Kenny Clark. The bad news is that quarterback Dan Waters, who started last season as a freshman, transferred out of the school district and Keefer had to seek an untested replacement.
The Lions should be better this season, but the question is this: How much better? Significant improvement might not be enough to turn Greensburg Salem into a contender because of the competition in the conference.
HAMPTON (7-3, 6-2): The Talbots returned to the playoffs last season after a couple down years, but the comeback might be brief: Hampton lost a lot of players to graduation, and the rebuilding process will take some time.
So maybe it’s a good thing that an experienced Indiana team opens the season against the Talbots, who don’t have a quarterback on the roster who has played in a varsity game. Yet veteran coach Jacque DeMatteo is hopeful that an infusion of new players lives up to the lofty standards set by their predecessors. That won’t be an easy task, but the blueprint is there.
Key players returning include receivers Jon Floss and Eddie Edwards, running back C.J. Arch and lineman Steve Dayton.
If the Talbots have proved one thing with their recent up-and-down seasons, it’s that they are not predictable. This season could follow that trend, although it seems likely Hampton will have a tough time matching last season’s results.
HIGHLANDS (4-5, 3-5): It’s not a stretch to suggest Highlands is a serious contender for the conference title.
That’s because veteran coach Sam Albert has a roster loaded with talent and experience after a thin graduating class from last season. Among the players back are running backs Elijah Jackson, the team’s leading rusher, and Allan Cratsenberg, a north-south kind of back who gives defenses problems. The key to the offense could be quarterback Blake Leri, who passed for 815 yards last season as a sophomore.
Last year, Highlands opened the season 0-4 and then won four of its final five games and narrowly missed the playoffs. This year, the Rams are likely to be in the hunt for a playoff berth and possibly a conference title. With so many talented returning starters, expectations ought to be high.
HOLLIDAYSBURG (3-7, 3-5): The 2012 regular season ended so oddly for the Tigers. They entered the final game, against Indiana, believing they needed a win to get to the playoffs. But they lost that game and thought their dreams were dashed, only to find out later that because of a quirky point system, they had snared the final spot in the 16-team tournament.
Nonetheless, coach John Barton departed, and the 2012 season is a distant memory for the Tigers, who are looking for respect with new coach Homer DeLattre, who was hired after 11 years as the coach at Corry, a PIAA District 10 school. The big problem is that the Tigers lost a lot of seniors to graduation, including quarterback Brian Urban and receiver Kaleb Springer.
DeLattre has high expectations, but with new schemes and new talent come growing pains. In a tough conference, time is precious for the Tigers, who open the season Friday night at Highlands. A playoff berth would be an impressive debut for DeLattre for sure.
KNOCH (7-3, 6-2): The Knights share more than just the same conference record with Franklin Regional: Knoch is also reloading after the graduation of a number of key players from last season’s playoff team.
But that has rarely been an issue for coach Mike King, who has built the small-town Knights from Saxonburg into one of the more consistently good teams in the WPIAL. That’s why expectations are high for the Knights, who have gone a combined 28-6 the past three seasons. Gone from last season are the top passer, rusher and receiver, but not some other key parts, such as lineman Connor Shinsky and receiver Adam Albert.
Knoch has utilized a shotgun offense to amass gaudy scoring and yardage numbers the past few seasons, and this year probably won’t be much different. That’s why the expectations are high for Knoch despite the roster turnover.
The only surprise this year would be if the Knights are not in the mix.
MARS (9-2, 7-1): If there is a heavy favorite in the ultra-competitive Greater Allegheny Conference, it’s the Planets, who won the title last season and have several star players coming back this season for veteran coach Scott Heinauer.
Among them are quarterback Owen Nearhoof, who passed for 10 touchdowns last year, and running back Josh Schultheis, who rolled up an impressive 1,687 yards last year as a sophomore. The Planets did lose 22 seniors from last year’s team, but those losses probably won’t be felt down the road when Mars starts building momentum for a playoff run.
Like always, Mars has hopes of playing at Heinz Field in the WPIAL championship game. Considering the talent the Planets have coming back, it probably won’t be a surprise if they get there.