One thing became clear immediately at the inaugural Big Seven Conference joint news conference earlier this month in Belle Vernon.
Thomas Jefferson sits alone, at least for now.
Jaguars coach Bill Cherpak sat on one side of the room at Cedarbrook Golf Club, facing the six coaches who will try to knock off his defending Class AAA state champs.
Most welcomed the way Cherpak has raised the bar for everyone.
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"We have the best team in the state in our conference, and that gives a lot of credibility to our conference," Elizabeth Forward coach Gary Cathell said.
Said Belle Vernon coach Lou Rood, "They're the best, and we use them as a model."
Thomas Jefferson came out of the Big Seven and rolled to a 16-0 record last season.
"When you play in our conference, you're ready to go when the playoffs start," Cherpak said. "I definitely feel it will be a strong conference this season, from top to bottom."
Belle Vernon finished 5-5 overall and 5-1 in the Keystone Conference last season, but lost 10 starters on defense and both top runners in all-conference tailback Shane Curran and leading rusher and fullback John Krepps.
The Colts are coming off their best season since 1981. They finished 5-1 in the conference and 8-2 overall, made the WPIAL quarterfinals for the second time in three seasons, and were ranked in the state for seven weeks.
"We lost a great group of seniors," Chartiers Valley coach Chris Saluga said. "We have guys to step in. To have them do it on Friday nights, that's the challenge."
Five starters return on offense, including running back Jim Riley, and tackle Tim Yaksick.
The Warriors started five sophomores on each side of the ball last season and finished 0-10 and 0-6 in conference.
The rebuilding job continues, but with a little more depth.
Fullback Greg Sotereanos and tailback Cameron Dixon could provide a spark with a fast start.
When former California University coach Jeff Petrucci took charge a year ago, he was the third Ringgold coach in three years.
The Rams finished 4-2 in the Keystone Conference last year after players adjusted to the new system. They could face a bigger challenge entering the Big Seven.
Petrucci predicted the Rams will be "very competitive" behind fullback Rudy Destefano, wideout Jake Spaziani, tight end David Bassi, running back Simon Bekavac and offensive tackle Tom Brletich.
The Jaguars have won three WPIAL titles in the past five years. They will try to make another title run this season, with a major Division I recruiting prospect anchoring each line.
Defensive end Brock Decicco returns to a defense that allowed just 8.3 points per game last season.
Powerful blocker Pat Eger shores up the offensive line.
Trinity The Hillers finished second behind Thomas Jefferson in a preseason poll of Big Seven coaches, drawing votes based on last season's 4-2 league record, and a defense with seven returning starters.
Defensive end Jack Jamerson and offensive tackle Nate Lojek have multiple scholarship offers, and returning cornerback and wideout Al Frey has big-play capabilities.
The Titans (3-6, 2-4), who failed to make the playoffs last season, will rely on Penn State recruit Adam Gress to open holes along the offensive line. That should help returning fullback Duane Burgwin.
|Predicted order of finish
||Last year's record
|1. Thomas Jefferson
|3. Chartiers Valley
|4. West Mifflin
|6. Belle Vernon
|7. Elizabeth Forward