Traditional powers Aliquippa, Washington in marquee matchup
Similar to what some would say about the Yankees in baseball or Notre Dame in college football, Mike Zmijanac believes WPIAL football is better when a marquee “name” program such as Washington is playing like a championship contender.
“It's good for high school football when the traditional teams are good,” Zmijanac said.
They don't get much bigger in Western Pennsylvania than Aliquippa — past or present. If it's the weekend after Thanksgiving, you can count on the Quips playing for a WPIAL championship at Heinz Field.
It's been five years since that hasn't been the case.
No. 1 seed Aliquippa will play No. 3 Washington for the WPIAL Class AA title in a matchup of 12-0 teams at 5 p.m. Friday.
While the Prexies are playing on Championship Friday for the first time since 2001, the Quips are making their seventh appearance in 10 years.
“Nobody understands how hard it is just to get here — let alone win,” Zmijanac said. “We're not complacent enough to not want to win, but to get here is a great accomplishment for any team in the WPIAL.”
It's an accomplishment Wash High used to make routinely. The Prexies won their first WPIAL title 95 years ago, and they played in six of the 12 Class AA championship games between 1990-2001.
Zmijanac boasts that he's been to every Aliquippa championship game appearance since 1952. He will be one of the few in the stadium on Friday who can say he was at Pitt Stadium the most recent time the Quips and Washington met in a WPIAL championship game (a 13-12 Aliquippa victory).
Twenty-two times since 1980, either Washington or Aliquippa has been to the WPIAL championship games. But this is the first time they will play each other with a championship on the line in 60 years.
To Zmijanac, it doesn't get much better.
“Those are the fanbases that make high school football,” Zmijanac said. “Let me tell you something — I'm not putting people down when I say this — but ... all these new places that these recent residents come to, they only care about their kids playing, and once their kids are done playing, they quit following the team.
“Wash High, Beaver Falls, Jeannette, Aliquippa, McKeesport ... people put their blood and soul into those teams in those towns. It's good to have a traditional, longstanding school like that back.”
Mike Bosnic is the man who led the Prexies back. When he took over as coach in 2009, Washington was coming off one of the worst seasons in its roughly century-long history at 1-8.
Four years later, Wash High is undefeated and in the WPIAL championship game again.
“We've come a long way,” Bosnic said. “It's really neat to see the community excited about the football team again. It's a neat little town where football is still really important, and to be able to bring that pride and joy back to a lot of people in this community with how much it means to them is definitely very gratifying.”
It won't be easy to reward those fans with a victory Friday. Aliquippa has been one of the more dominant WPIAL teams — this side of Class A Clairton — in recent memory. The Quips lead the WPIAL in scoring offense (52 points per game), scoring defense (3.5 ppg) and total defense (76.58 yards per game).
Washington counters with the WPIAL's leading rusher in Shai McKenzie. The junior has 2,656 rushing yards and can break the WPIAL single-season record with 85 yards Friday.
“I think he's one of the elite running backs in the country,” Bosnic said.
Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.