Defending champ Aliquippa stands as measuring stick for Beaver Falls
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Undefeated and ranked fourth, Beaver Falls has outscored its first seven opponents by more than 200 points.
But Aliquippa wasn't one of them.
To consider yourself a contender for the WPIAL Class AA title, you must measure up with the two-time defending champion Quips.
“You know what the measuring stick is,” said Beaver Falls coach Ryan Matsook, whose Tigers will host No. 1 Aliquippa at Geneva College's stadium Friday night.
“We've said from the beginning of the year that the standard starts Week 8. If you lose by two touchdowns, then you're two touchdowns off the standard. If you win that game, then I guess you're right on the standard. They are the standard in Western Pennsylvania. When you go and see all the championships they've won, that speaks for itself.”
In recent years, few teams have met Aliquippa's standard. Only Beaver Falls has a regular-season win over the Quips in the past five seasons, a 21-14 victory in 2009.
“Rivalries are born of two teams playing well for a long time,” Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac said. “Some people want to think they have a rivalry when they beat us once every 20 years. Beaver Falls is a rival.”
A year ago, Beaver Falls didn't measure up.
“Embarrassing is what it was,” said Matsook, whose Tigers lost on television at Aliquippa, 66-7.
“I've been here eight years and that's the only time I can say we quit,” he said. “We've beaten them. They've beaten us. Every time it's a hard-fought game. I just didn't feel like that was Beaver Falls football. The rubber hit the road the next week.
“You have moments in your program when things take a turn.”
The loss brought quick changes. There were six new Beaver Falls starters a week later as others left the program. Now a year later, with added focus, Beaver Falls welcomes Aliquippa to Geneva College's stadium. Both teams are undefeated.
“It's a big game for both sides,” Matsook said. “We're going to play for a MAC championship on Friday. It's isn't about last year. It isn't about any year. It's about this year. We've got to tie up some loose ends and hopefully give them a game.”
Aliquippa has won three straight in this series, which dates to 1920.
A year ago, the Quips scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions and returned an interception for another score on a Thursday night at The Pit. The 66 points were the most scored in the teams' 78 matchups.
“(That loss) is motivation to an extent,” said Beaver Falls senior tailback Damian Rawl, who has rushed for 820 yards and 11 touchdowns, “but we're really not focused on last year. We're a whole different team than last year. We have our minds right.”
Rawl rushed for 131 yards in last week's 51-6 victory over Freedom.
“I expect Friday to be a hard-fought game into the fourth quarter,” said senior quarterback Dan Stratton, whose 63-yard touchdown pass to Sage Curry gave Beaver Falls its only points last year. “It's a rivalry game.”
A key matchup could be the lines. The Quips added a few new starters since last year but return senior tackle Jaleel Fields, a Division I recruit.
“We have to keep our heads in the game and keep fighting,” BF center Mike Lyons said.
Through seven weeks, Aliquippa has not been challenged. The Quips have outscored opponents, 342-42. Their closest victories were by 31 points against Ambridge and South Park.
A week ago, they beat Ellwood City, 56-0.
Dravon Henry (741 yards) and Terry Swanson (717 yards) rank among WPIAL rushing leaders, yet they haven't been needed after halftime. The pair headlines a senior class that has made three trips to Heinz Field and twice visited Hersheypark Stadium for the PIAA title game.
“They've had a nice run of talent for four straight years,” Matsook said. “Let's be honest, you've got people in Aliquippa saying last year's and this year's teams are the best teams that they've had ever.”
A 15-time WPIAL champion, Aliquippa has reached Heinz Field in five consecutive seasons and won the past two titles. Ranked No. 1 in the state, talented teams around the WPIAL must measure themselves with Aliquippa.
It's a role the Quips welcome.
“That's what we strive for,” said Zmijanac, who recalls when the Quips weren't the WPIAL's benchmark. “Back in the '60s, if you look up the records, we won nine games in 12 years at Aliquippa. The kids were always competitive, they just didn't know how to (win).”
Much the way other teams now see Aliquippa, the Quips studied the top programs of that era.
“When we took this program over, and (former coach) Don Yannessa would be the first to tell you, we strove to be New Castle,” Zmijanac said. “We used to tell our kids to run like New Castle running backs. Many years later, we're thought of like that, and we're very proud of it.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.
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