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Aliquippa (7, 15-0)

Written by: on Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Aliquippa has finally made it back to the state’s biggest game in Class AA.

That’s not to say the Quips haven’t had their share of chances, though. A couple recent near-misses within the last five years proved it was only a matter of time before the traditional Beaver County powerhouse was back in the PIAA finals.

Now, with the opportunity, the Quips have not only gotten back, but they’ve busted down the doors to get here.

Aliquippa (15-0), the first 15-time WPIAL football champion, is making its fifth PIAA finals appearance, and fourth in AA, against fellow unbeaten Wyomissing (15-0) in the PIAA AA championship game Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium, with kickoff slated for high noon.

2012 marks Aliquippa’s eighth foray in the PIAA playoffs and third PIAA finals appearance since the calendar flipped to the 2000s. Consider the current season one of a “mission” of sorts for the Quips, who saw their hopes and dreams of a PIAA finals berth derailed last season at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona with five turnovers in a 20-19 loss to Tyrone, the Quips’ second semifinals loss to the Golden Eagles and first since 1996.

The WPIAL has 33 PIAA champions in its league history – 10 of which have two PIAA titles or more. Aliquippa is one of those 10 two-time championship programs, and the list includes programs like North Allegheny, Upper St. Clair, Thomas Jefferson, Clairton, Rochester, South Park, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, McKeesport and Farrell. Aliquippa could become one of the WPIAL’s three-time PIAA champions, which includes Clairton, Rochester, Central Catholic and TJ.

Aliquippa is one of four Beaver County programs who have won a PIAA championship in football – Hopewell, Rochester and South Side Area are the others. Beaver County hasn’t just been limited to those three programs reaching the state’s biggest stage, however. Blackhawk made a trio of AAA finals appearances in the 1990s. Western Beaver went to the 1994 A state final. All told, Beaver County programs are a combined 7-8 in PIAA championship games. Aliquippa is 2-2.

The Quips are one of three WPIAL representatives in the PIAA finals for 2012. In the PIAA playoff era, the WPIAL has sent three or more teams to the state football finals 17 times (including 2012’s three-some). In the previous 16 instances of the WPIAL sending three or more reps to the state finals in football, only six have ended with the WPIAL winning two or more golden footballs.

Aliquippa boasts in its offensive backfield a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, which is not uncommon in the PIAA finals. Aliquippa and Dunmore both have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in this year’s state championship games. It’s the sixth time in the last seven years that two or more teams who have qualified for a state championship game have featured a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. In the previous six years, seven of the 14 teams who have had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers won a PIAA title, including Archbishop Wood and Lancaster Catholic in 2011.

If Aliquippa marks a victory Saturday, it would be the team’s 82nd overall playoff victory and 649th in school history. The 82 playoff victories, which includes the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs combined, is a state record, and only three teams (Aliquippa included) have more than 60 overall playoff victories. The other teams both reside from the WPIAL – Rochester (64) and Clairton (61). Berwick would be the first non-WPIAL team to 60 all-time playoff victories, and the Bulldogs presently sit at 59. Cathedral Prep has 56 all-time playoff victories entering Friday’s PIAA AAA championship game.

Head coach Mike Zmijanic has been on the sidelines at Aliquippa since the start of the 1997 season. He’s coached five WPIAL AA championship teams and made five PIAA semifinals appearances while winning the 2003 PIAA championship over Northern Lehigh. Zmijanic’s 2000 Quips lost to Mount Carmel Area, 26-6. Overall, Zmijanic’s record entering Saturday afternoon’s title game is 176-28.

Aliquippa loves to run, run, run, run the football. Running the ball has accounted for approximately 95 percent of the Quips’ total offensive output this 2012 season. Aliquippa is averaging 49.7 points per game and has only been “held” below 40 points on three occasions: to Beaver Area to end the regular season; to Washington in the WPIAL AA championship game; and to Richland in the PIAA semifinals last Friday.

Like its counterpart Wyomissing, the Quips have four rushers over 500 yards for the season. Junior Dravon Henry, a major Division-1 prospect in the 2014 class, leads the way with 1,796 yards and 29 total touchdowns (27 rushing) on 175 carries. His teammate and No. 2 rusher Terry Swanson, also a junior, has 1,420 yards and 21 total touchdowns on 126 carries. Quarterback Malik Shegog adds 629 yards and 12 total scores on 71 totes and freshman Kaezon Pugh has 518 yards and scored six total touchdowns on 53 carries.

Aliquippa has rushed for 5,536 yards, nearly 1,000 yards more than Wyomissing’s 4,688. Aliquippa averages 369.1 yards per game on the ground. Combined, the Quips’ and Spartans’ season rushing yardage outputs total nearly six miles in all.

Shegog hasn’t thrown the ball much, but has completed 33-of-64 passes for 639 yards and eight touchdowns. No Aliquippa receiver has more than eight receptions for the season. Hassahn Thompson leads the way with eight catches for 233 yards.

The Quips’ offensive line features junior Jaleel Fields, a 280-pounder who is receiving a lot of interest from Division-1 FBS programs.

Defensively, Aliquippa has been flat out nasty, allowing only 85 total points between its first string and reserve units for an average of 5.7 points per game. Aliquippa has recorded six shutouts along the way.

Can the Quips make it a third PIAA championship in program history Saturday? Or will Aliquippa have to take a back seat to Wyomissing’s determined senior class?

Find out Saturday.

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