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5 things to watch in Week 1 of high school football: Teams set to begin conference play

September 25, 2018
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Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render walks to the field with his players before the start of a game against Peters Township Friday, Sept. 5, 2014, at Upper St. Clair.

It wasn’t long ago that WPIAL football teams could ease their way into their conference schedules.

Now, almost every team jumps right in.

Ninety-four of the WPIAL’s 120 teams will face a conference opponent in Week 1, a growing trend over the past decade that makes coaches approach the season differently.

Among the best Week 1 matchups, North Allegheny visits Norwin, and Central Catholic hosts Seneca Valley at the Wolvarena. All four are potential playoff teams in Class 6A.

Penn-Trafford visits Gateway in a rematch of last season’s WPIAL Class 5A championship. Either Derry or Freeport will establish itself as an early contender in the Class 3A Big East Conference.

In Class 4A, Beaver visits South Fayette in a matchup of ranked Northwest 8 teams.

“I think this is fine,” North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. “But this puts the emphasis on how you prepare in the summer. This puts a lot of emphasis on how you’re organized and how you do things during camp. It’s a challenge, but a challenge that we look forward to as a coaching staff.”

In 2009, for example, North Allegheny had two preseason scrimmages and started its season with four nonconference matchups. This year, the Tigers scrimmaged Penn Hills, defeated Christians of Faith Academy in a Week Zero matchup and now jump into conference play.

“It’s definitely different,” Walker said. “You prepare a little bit different. We put a lot of emphasis on those two weeks of camp. We put different guys in so we could get them on film, evaluate them and be ready for this week. You don’t have any more time.”

The early-season conference matchups are an incentive to play a real game in Week Zero, said Norwin coach Dave Brozeski. Only 61 WPIAL teams skipped their second scrimmage the past two seasons, a number that jumped to 99 this fall.

“I would hate like heck for this (matchup with North Allegheny) to be our very first game of the year,” said Brozeski, whose team defeated rival Penn-Trafford last Friday. “Having that Week Zero game helps you. Our guys have been under the Friday night lights for a game.”

2. The 400-wins club

Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render can earn his 400th career victory with a win Friday night against Peters Township. It’s a milestone victory that won’t be matched in the WPIAL, says the coach who’s considered most likely to catch him.

“At any level, that’s just ridiculous,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said of 400 wins. “That will never happen again. It just won’t.”

Render’s career record is 399-138-6 in 49 seasons.

His head coaching career started with two seasons at Carrollton, Ohio, and seven at Uniontown. He arrived in 1979 at Upper St. Clair, where he has coached for 40 years.

“He’s done it his way for all those many years,” Cherpak said, “and obviously it worked. I’m happy for him.”

In the history of the WPIAL, Joe Hamilton and George Novak are the only other coaches to reach 300 wins. Hamilton retired from Blackhawk after the 2014 season with 342. Novak retired from Woodland Hills in 2016 with 306.

Among active WPIAL coaches, Cherpak is often suggested as the one with a chance to reach 400. Cherpak, 50, has won 247 games in 23 seasons -- an average of 10.7 wins per year. At that rate, he’d reach 400 victories in 14 more seasons.

“Yeah, well, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Cherpak said with a laugh.

3. Perfect 10 for quarterbacks

Forget that cloud of dust, the WPIAL has become a passing league.

Ten quarterbacks threw for at least 270 yards last week, a remarkable debut that could become a season-long trend. Imani Christian’s Israel Reed led with 434 yards and eight touchdowns while Sto-Rox’s Eric Wilson was second with 395 yards and four TDs.

Also making a splash in their season openers were Washington’s Zack Swartz (379 yards), South Fayette’s Jamie Diven (352), Avonworth’s Derek Johncour (347), Plum’s Hunter Linhart (299), Norwin’s Jack Salopek (296), Penn Hills’ Hollis Mathis (287), Upper St. Clair’s Jason Sweeney (275) and Serra Catholic’s Patrick Brennan (271).

A top passing matchup this week pairs Sto-Rox’s Wilson against Our Lady of the Sacred Heart’s Tyler Bradley, a 2,246-yard passer last season. Bradley threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns last week.

4. Season debut for 2 dozen

Twenty-one WPIAL teams who chose to scrimmage last weekend will make their regular-season debuts this week. Is there an advantage to playing Week Zero?

Coaching opinions differ.

Among the matchups to watch, Woodland Hills visits Bethel Park for a Class 5A Allegheny 8 opener Friday. Woodland Hills played a Week Zero game while Bethel Park scrimmaged.

Two other teams making their season debuts are Charleroi and Monessen, who had their game last week canceled by school administrators.

Clairton won’t make its season debut until Week 2 because Mapletown forfeited their nonconference game scheduled this week. Clairton held a scrimmage last week.

5. Winning streaks ahead?

Can Shaler, Southmoreland, Carlynton or Leechburg go 2-0?

Those four schools all ended extended losing streaks with Week Zero victories, so now can they keep that momentum moving? Shaler visits Kiski Area, Southmoreland visits Frazier, Carlynton visits Fort Cherry and Leechburg hosts Jeannette. Shaler’s streak was the longest at 24 consecutive losses before defeating New Castle last Friday.

Nine WPIAL teams went winless last season, but four of them won last weekend. Ambridge, Uniontown and Chartiers-Houston are the three still searching for a win.

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