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Vikings loaded with returning starters in '99
Valley is NSN's WPIAL Class AAA pre-season #1 team
By Rick Smith, August 10, 1999

1999 WPIAL Class AAA Football Rankings

1. Valley (9-2)
2. Highlands (10-1)
3. West Allegheny (9-2)
4. Belle Vernon (8-2)
5. Moon (12-3)
6. Derry (5-5)
7. Elizabeth Forward (5-5)
8. Blackhawk (11-1)
9. Thomas Jefferson (8-3)
10. Montour (6-4)

Valley looks great on paper, perhaps the beneficiary of the strongest returning class of any team in Western Pennsylvania. Can the Vikings translate that into a district championship in 1999? There is no doubt that NSN's pre-season WPIAL Class AAA #1 team will face some very tough competition on the road to Three Rivers Stadium this fall.

Head coach Ray White's team compiled an impressive 9-2 record in 1998, placing second in the Greater Allegheny Conference and advancing to the quarterfinal round of the WPIAL playoffs. The Vikes were eliminated by a Thomas Jefferson team that Valley had defeated by 2 TDs just a month earlier in a regular season non-conference battle. Certainly, Valley will need to be much more consistent in order to reach the Promised Land in 1999.

The big gun for Valley will be senior RB/LB Andre Burke. The 5'10" 195 pound game breaker rushed for over 800 yards as a junior while averaging a whopping 10.6 yards per carry and notching 10 TDs. Burke also made over 70 tackles and picked off three passes on the defensive side of the ball in 1998. He has very good speed (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and he's a fine student (3.2 GPA). Not surprisingly, plenty of colleges are interested. Burke is currently considering Kentucky, Pittsburgh, Penn State, North Carolina State, Michigan State, and West Virginia.

Burke will have plenty of experienced help from his teammates. Starting quarterback Dom Girardi, 6'2" and 205 pounds, returns for his senior campaign. All-Conference first teamers Frank Leonard (G, 6'2" 260 pounds), Mike Martin (DE, 6'1" 220 pounds), Jermaine Hughley (LB, 6'2" 215 pounds), and Mark Santucci (DB, 6' 190 pounds) also return.

The Vikings will only have to look across the Allegheny River to Natrona Heights for their main competition for the Greater Allegheny Conference crown in 1999. The Highlands Golden Rams get the nod as our #2 pre-season team. Like Valley, head coach Tim Karrs' squad will benefit from a number of returning star performers, players that helped the team advance to the WPIAL playoff semi-finals in 1998.

One important position for Highlands that will be manned by a first year starter is at quarterback. There is, however, a few compelling reasons to believe that Jordan Babinsack will be a rookie success under center for the Rams. Babinsack, at 6'5" and 210 pounds, certainly has the size to be a successful presence in the pocket. He has also proven to be a top-notch three-sport athlete. After garnering first-team All-Greater Allegheny Conference honors for his play as a DB last fall, Babinsack was also a key member of Highlands' basketball and baseball teams.

The Golden Rams will be one of the physically larger teams in WPIAL 3A this year. Tackle Aaron Berkoben, 6'4" and 280 pounds, and RB/LB Tyrone Woody, 6'1" and 225 pounds, should be dominating on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Matt Huet, a 6'2" 175 pound senior, could help win a close game or two as one of the WPIAL's better kickers.

Once again, the #3 West Allegheny offense will be in the hands of a very young, but promising, quarterback. Tyler Palko will return for his second season under center after winning the position as a freshman. Cynics may point to the fact that his father, Bob, is the head coach. But by many accounts, young Tyler will be a blue chip recruit in 2001.

Palko is not the only youngster that gained a lot of valuable experience for the Indians last season. Keep in mind that only eight seniors and seven returning starters began the 1998 season for West Allegheny. Despite the lack of varsity game experience, the Indians still impressed with a second place finish in the always brutal Parkway Conference, just behind an excellent Blackhawk squad and ahead of the WPIAL champion and state runner-up Moon Tigers.

Returning in the trenches for West Allegheny is 6'2" 275 pound two-way tackle Mitch Fedorko, an All-Parkway Conference first teamer last season as a junior. Another senior, 6'3" 250 pound John Meerdo is also a returning starter on the line. Look for the backfield combination of Mike Bracken, a 6' 190 pounder, and 5'10" 190 pound Kevin Campbell, both seniors and returning starters, to spark the running game.

Conference championships are becoming quite the norm at #4 Belle Vernon. The Leopards have claimed the Keystone Conference championship for the past five successive seasons and are favored to grab a sixth straight title in 1999. The one common denominator during those five championship seasons has been the man at the top. During his only five campaigns at Belle Vernon, head coach Gary Dongilli's teams have also won a WPIAL championship, have a 49-9 overall record, and boast an eye-popping 35-1 mark in Keystone Conference play. Fittingly, Dongilli was given a contract extension through the 2004 season by the Belle Vernon schoolboard during the summer.

Talented 6'1" 180 pound junior QB/DB Josh Cramer keeps the family tradition of fine football players alive at Belle Vernon. Josh's older brother Jesse, a standout tailback for the Leopards the past three years, graduated last spring. First team Keystone Conference center Jereme Dudzinski, a 6' 210 pound senior, will anchor the O-line. Juniors Scott McClintock, a 6'3" 210 pound FB/LB, and Erik Gill, a 6'5" 215 pound TE/LB, should also help solidify the Leopards' lineup.

What could possibly top the dream season experienced by head coach Mark Capuano and his Moon team in 1998? The Tigers practically came out of nowhere to capture the imagination of high school fans across the Commonwealth last season with their Zero-Tolerance battle cry. They featured Pennsylvania's stingiest defensivee unit which powered them to a WPIAL championship and state runner-up honors, allowing less than four points per game and recording nine shutouts along the way.

While an encore season to match 1998 may be an unreasonable expectation because of heavy graduation losses, Capuano has a couple key building blocks on which to construct another fine defense. Mickey Keene, a solid 6'3" 265 pound senior lineman, is starting to attract the attention of Division I recruiters with his rare combination of size and speed (4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash). Keene is also a very good student with a 3.5 GPA. Temple University made an early scholarship offer back in June. The Tigers also return standout defensive end Tim Morrow, a 6'2" 215 pound senior.

#6 Derry will enjoy a phenomenal 1999 if head coach Greg Dorns' squad can come anywhere near duplicating the magnitude of improvement exhibited last season. The Trojans jumped from an 0-10 team in 1997 to a WPIAL playoff qualifier in 1998. First team All-Allegheny Conference senior lineman Kyle Schmitt is drawing a lot of attention from recruiters with his outstanding 6'5" 280 pound frame. Derry also returns its entire starting backfield of QB Dan Elliot and running backs Anthony Baum and Tom Skelly.

If #7 Elizabeth Forward is to have a successful fall, there is little doubt senior RB/DB Pat Risha will be the primary reason. Risha rushed for nearly 1,500 yards in 1998, including a school-record 43 carry, 360 yard performance that helped lead the Warriors to a 35-28 victory over Peters Township. EF head coach Rich Bowen's biggest challenge will be to find suitable replacements for four first team All-Keystone Conference linemen and standout fullback Dan Meyers.

"That team doesn't rebuild. It reloads." We've all heard it before. The old cliche' which describes the team that's right in the thick of things, year in and year out. On the NFL level, it's teams like the San Francisco 49ers. Florida State certainly fits the mold in the college ranks. Here in Western Pennsylvania, one of the high school teams that has earned that label of respect is NSN's #8 pre-season team, Blackhawk.

The 11-1 Cougars were the odds-on favorite to win their fifth WPIAL Class AAA title in nine years until they ran into the Moon buzz-saw in the championship game at Three Rivers Stadium. Gone from that very talented team are 17 seniors, including stars such as QB Dane Helsing and TB Trent Wissner. It may be that no team in the WPIAL was hit harder by graduation than Blackhawk. Consider that seven Cougar seniors were first team All-Parkway Conference offensive performers in 1999.

If head coach Joe Hamilton is to keep the Blackhawk train on track, it will probably be on the strength of his defense. Look for blue-chip defensive end Jake Anderson, a 6'3" 250 pound senior, to lead the charge for the Cougars.

Thomas Jefferson, our #9 team, is looking for its first WPIAL championship since 1980. Head coach Bill Cherpak's Jaguars should be one of the more physically imposing teams in WPIAL 3A this season. TJ's version of the Hogs will be led by one of the WPIAL's top underclassmen, 6'6" 290 pouind Tyler Reed, a first team All-Keystone Conference lineman as a sophomore.

#10 Montour is another one of those tough-as-nails teams out of the Parkway Conference. Three year starter Bob Ramsey, a 6'4" 295 pound senior, should be a stalwart playing tackle on both sides of the line of scrimmage for head coach Don Morgan's Spartans. Ramsey has already been offered scholarships by at least seven colleges. Maryland and Virginia Tech currently top his list.

Some other top players to watch in WPIAL Class AAA this fall include McGuffey DB Heath Shriver, Kittaning WR Brent Hockenberry, Hopewell DE Chuck Burgunder, Peters Township WR/S Scott Barton and T Nick Medvid, Chartiers Valley WR Ray Ventrone, and Blackhawk K Eric Blackburn.

Prediction: 1999 WPIAL Class AAA Playoff Qualifiers

Greater Allegheny
1. Valley 1. West Allegheny 1. Belle Vernon
2. Highlands 2. Moon 2. Elizabeth Forward
3. Derry 3. Blackhawk 3. Thomas Jefferson
4. Burrell 4. Montour 4. Mount Pleasant