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Class AA breakdown: Can anyone dethrone Aliquippa?

Paul Schofield
| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Aliquippa running back Terry Swanson carries the ball during a Quips workout.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Aliquippa running back Terry Swanson carries the ball during a Quips workout.

Will history repeat itself in Class AA?

Aliquippa will be looking for its third consecutive WPIAL title but, more importantly for the Quips, their first PIAA title since Darrelle Revis almost single-handily beat Northern Lehigh in 2003.

Tyrone beat Aliquippa, 20-19, in the PIAA semifinals in 2011 and Wyomissing dispatched the Quips in the 2012 finals.

“I still can't believe they lost last year,” Mt. Pleasant defensive coordinator Bob Gumbita said.

Neither could Beaver Falls coach Ryan Matsook.

“Did the best team win the state title? No,” Matsook said. “But you can't turn the ball over in big games like they did.

“They are still the team to beat until someone beats them. They deserve to be No. 1”

Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanic said his squad isn't using last year's loss as motivation in 2013.

“That's not our style,” Zmijanic said. “If you're going to seek revenge for a loss, you shouldn't have lost in the first place.

“Every team is different. Sure we have skilled players returning, but we had an exceptional group of juniors and seniors in 2012. Depth was our strength. It won't be this year.”

Aliquippa is favored because it returns four Division I prospects: running backs Dravon Henry and Terry Swanson, lineman Jaleel Fields and linebacker Donovan Cobb.

Because Aliquippa blew out every opponent in 2013, Zmijanic said his team wasn't able to develop a passing game.

Henry rushed for 1,857 yards and 27 touchdowns and Swanson 1,421 yards and 21 touchdowns.

“We'll be a different team this year, actually back to what we've been in the past,” Zmijanic said. “We were a powerful team with a running quarterback. We'll be more wide open this season.”

So who will challenge the Quips in 2013?

South Fayette has a lot of skilled players returning, led by quarterback Brett Brumbaugh, running back Grant Fetchet and receivers Justin Watson, Conner Beck, Nick Ponikvar and Roman Denson. Brumbaugh, a junior, threw for 2,823 yards and 37 touchdowns last season.

Mt. Pleasant has a strong senior group returning, led by running back Tyler Mellors (1,490 yards, 25 touchdowns) and quarterback Ryan Gumbita (787 yards, seven TDs).

“Class AA is really deep,” Mt. Pleasant coach Bo Ruffner said. “Aliquippa has to be the favorite, but we hope to have a good regular season and get a good playoff seed.

“The Interstate Conference is going to be tough and should prepare us for the playoffs. Washington has Shai (McKenzie), Jeannette has great tradition, Greensburg Central Catholic has a nice group returning and Yough is going to surprise people.”

Washington reached the WPIAL finals in 2012 but fell short against the Quips. McKenzie, one of the most highly touted running backs in the state, returns along with linebacker Chase Caldwell and linemen Xavier Darden and Anthony Byrd.

Beaver Falls could be the team most likely to challenge the Quips' reign. The Tigers return 25 seniors, including three Division I prospects: lineman Brock Boxen, linebacker Sage Curry and receiver/defensive back Elijah Cottrill.

“We were relatively young last year,” Matsook said. “We have nine starters back on offense and seven on defense.

“The only team better than Aliquippa that I've seen was the 2007 Jeannette team with Terrelle Pryor. They'll have something to prove after losing in the PIAA finals.”

Look for Seton-La Salle, which returns nine defensive starters from a quarterfinal squad, and McGuffey, which should benefit from the transfer of Trinity running back Patrick Frey, to battle for playoff position with South Fayette in the Century Conference.

Frey rushed for 901 yards at Trinity, and he joins a backfield that returns running back James Duchi (1,514 yards, 13 TDs) and quarterback Nate Whipkey (439 yards, three touchdowns).

Shady Side Academy also has a lot of skill players back this season, including running backs Jarred Brevard (685 yards, nine TDs) and Pitt recruit Dennis Briggs (473 yards).

“(The Allegheny) conference doesn't get much respect,” SSA coach Dave Havern said. “But it's balanced. You usually never get through unscathed.”

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