Thursday, August 30, 2007

Unofficial top 10

Without regard to recruiting services, scouting combines or other publications, it's time to unveil the top 10 high school football players in 2007 from the Washington-Greene region:

1. Andrew Sweat, Sr., Trinity, LB/FB
The best defensive player I've seen in my 10 years of covering high school football.

2. Mike Yancich, Sr., Trinity, LB/RB
A freakish, one-of-a-kind athlete. No wonder Trinity coach Ed Dalton calls him "Tarzan."

3. Mike Hull, So., Canon-McMillan, LB/RB
The next great linebacker in Washington County. Insiders say he's a lock to play at Penn State.

4. Donte Valentino, Sr., California, QB/DB
Valentino will likely be a three-time all-state player by the end of this year. He's easily the area's most exciting player and were it not for his size, he'd be a sure-fire Division I prospect.

5. Brandon Weaver, Sr., Trinity, RB/DB
A broken wrist limited Weaver in 2006. Sweat thinks Weaver might be the Hillers best player.

6. Zane Zebrasky, Sr., Canon-McMillan, QB/LB
Zebrasky possesses a strong arm and leadership qualities. He's also one of the toughest QBs in the WPIAL.

7. Jeravin Matthews, Sr., Canon-McMillan, RB/WR
Insanely fast (a 4.22 40-yard dash), Matthews will be utilized as much as possible in the Big Macs offense.

8. Tyler Porco, Sr., Peters Township, QB/LB
New coaches installed a pass-happy offense for Porco, one of the stronger players on the Indians roster.

9. Dave Grillo, Sr., Charleroi, FB/LB
Grillo's size will likely keep Division I schools away but Sweat may be the only local player with more tackles at year's end.

10. Jeff Paletta, Sr., Beth-Center, OL/DL
Beth-Center has been dominant up front on both sides of the ball the last two years. Paletta is a big reason why.

Must-see games

There are several quality football games being played Friday, no doubt a few I'd like to see. Here's a quick look at the top games throughout the WPIAL:

1. Trinity at Canon-McMillan - Sports editor Chris Dugan is covering this one and it features a rising Class AAA power in Trinity and a potential Class AAAA playoff team in Canon-McMillan. The field will be loaded with future college players, the stands will be packed and it may be the best game in District 7.

2. Monessen at Charleroi - This marks the 99th meeting between the two, who are separated by the Monongahela River. Anytime the game is played at Charerloi, Monessen fans place a large "M" on the opposite side of the river facing the stadium. Tremendous. By the way, no one is really talking about the Greyhounds. They are my pick to win the Tri-County South and I picked them to win this game.

3. Carmichaels at Beth-Center - The Bulldogs are to the point where they demand preseason respect no matter how many starters have been replaced. 17-1 over the last two regular seasons ... that's very impressive. Carmichaels will be much improved this year.

Other games:
Greensburg Central Catholic at East Allegheny - Remember East A has 19 new players from Duquesne High School.
Ambridge at Aliquippa - It's Beaver County's version of Charerloi-Monessen.
Mt. Lebanon at Woodland Hills - I don't expect either team to be a contender this year in Quad-A, but Lebo pulled a shocker last year.

There's a huge game Saturday as nationally ranked Gateway plays Cardinal Mooney (Ohio) in the Ohio vs. USA Challenge at Canton, Ohio. Gateway is loaded - Shayne Hale looks ready for the NFL right now - but they were just 6-5 a year ago. Most "experts", including myself, believe the Gators will win the WPIAL and PIAA this year.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The beautiful game

Anyone who reads the O-R might have an idea that I love soccer. Played it my whole life from youth leagues to adult leagues and a whole lot of levels in between.

And while Friday may signify the first day of the high school football regular season here in the PIAA, it also marks the first day for soccer. In 2006, my favorite team to watch was the Peters Township boys soccer team. They were phenomenal and played at an extremely high level throughout the year.

Most of the players are back, which means 2007 could be a huge year for the Indians and new head coach Bobby Dyer, a former PT product who also played at Pitt.

Haven't had much of a chance to study the WPIAL soccer scene at this point but I can't imagine there's a better player than senior forward Shane Pruitt. And I seriously doubt there's a better finisher than Mackenzie Creehan, a goal-producing forward on the PT girls team.

Football tab

Readers of the Observer-Reporter got their hands on our annual preseason high school football preview Tuesday. Those who scan the Almanac got theirs today.

There's a lot of information crammed into a relatively small publication. The O-R version features Trinity linebackers Mike Yancich and Andrew Sweat on the cover. The Almanac version has the four remaining starters from Upper St. Clair's PIAA Class AAAA championship team on its cover. They recently chatted with Almanac sports editor Eleanor Bailey for an in-depth look at Class AAAA's best program.

I got the opportunity to interview Yancich, a Penn State recruit, and Sweat, an Ohio State recruit, for a cover story. Both are excellent to talk to and do their best to give in-depth answers, a real rarity at any level of sports. I guarantee that no matter how their respective football careers turn out, they'll each be highly successful away from the sport. And that's what really matters.

Other things of interest: stories on every team within the coverage area, past WPIAL and PIAA champions, stories on college football from West Virginia to Pitt and all points in between (Cal U, W&J, Waynesburg). Plus, hard-working Steelers beat writer F. Dale Lolley breaks down the black and gold.

We put a lot of time and effort into it and we hope you enjoy it. Let us know what you think, likes, dislikes or what we can do better.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Preseason football rankings

Here are my preseason WPIAL football rankings by classification (includes 2006 record):
Class AAAA
1. Gateway 6-5
2. Upper St. Clair 16-0
3. Pittsburgh Central Catholic 10-2
4. McKeesport 8-3
5. Penn Hills 10-2
Teams to watch: North Allegheny, North Hills, Canon-McMillan

Class AAA
1. Thomas Jefferson 14-1
2. Trinity 6-4
3. Pine-Richland 11-1
4. Hopewell 9-2
5. West Allegheny 4-6
Teams to watch: Franklin Regional, Hampton, Chartiers Valley, West Mifflin

Class AA
1. Jeannette 14-2
2. Aliquippa 10-1
3. Seton-La Salle 9-2
4. Mars 9-2
5. Greensburg Central Catholic 11-2
Teams to watch: Beaver Falls, Brentwood, Ford City, Washington

Class A
1. Clairton 14-1
2. Beth-Center 11-1
3. Rochester 12-1
4. Springdale 6-5
5. Serra Catholic 8-2
Teams to watch: California, Monessen, North Catholic

The rankings will be updated each week.

Dropping the ball

The PIAA Board of Control made a poor decision earlier this summer when it approved a shorter winter sports season in an effort to maintain its current 16-week football schedule.
Not only did all winter sports lose two competitions per season, most fall sports were affected as well.
There are several problems with this decision. For one, the PIAA sends a clear message to all student-athletes not playing football that you're not as important as the ones who are playing football. Secondly, college-bound athletes in other sports will not be as prepared as student- athletes from other states who get in more games.
This is particularly true in baseball, where Pennsylvania plays, in some cases, 20 fewer games than teams in other states.
Now, I'm all for high school football. It's a tradition in Pennsylvania that's tough to beat. But that tradition should not cost any one else. Some of us happen to like soccer.
Welcome to The Varsity Letters

Greetings everyone. My name is Mike Kovak and I cover scholastic sports, among other things, for the Observer- Reporter. I'd like to welcome you to The Varsity Letters, a blog all about high school athletics throughout Washington and Greene Counties and, sometimes, the WPIAL, PIAA and beyond.
Those who've come to know me in my eight years at the O-R know I do not play favorites. That won't change on this blog, where I intend on offering a little more opinion and plan to crank up the critical. We'll talk about rumors, rumblings and rants.
Don't hold back and join in.
On occasion, members of the O-R sports staff will join in and I'm really looking forward to hearing from all of you throughout the 2007-08 school year.