Gorman: Aliquippa in pursuit of perfection
Aliquippa is steeped in high school football tradition, including one that seems to shout from its rooftop.
When the Quips win a WPIAL championship — and they hold the league record, with 15 — the title year is painted on the fieldhouse roof at Carl A. Aschman Stadium, otherwise known as The Pit.
Those years stretch from Aliquippa's first title team in 1952 to this year's WPIAL Class AA champions, who became the 14th team in school history to finish the regular season undefeated.
Yet, for all of that tradition, these Quips have a chance to do something unprecedented.
“If we win states, we'll be the first team in Aliquippa history to do that undefeated,” said Dravon Henry, a junior tailback-safety who is living up to his promise as the Quips' next great. “It's real good to know that, but we've got to stay humble and keep working hard in practice to achieve that goal. It's a lot of pressure. You want to be the first team that ever did that.”
Believe it or not, Henry is right. Aliquippa has had undefeated teams and PIAA champions, but never in the same season.
Twice, undefeated teams lost in the PIAA final. The 1988 Quips, led by Sean Gilbert, were 14-0 and ranked No. 2 by USA Today before losing to Berwick in the inaugural PIAA championships. As were the 2000 Quips, led by Josh Lay, before losing to Mt. Carmel.
Twice, one-loss teams won the PIAA championship. The 1991 Quips, led by Ty Law, lost to Farrell before going on to win the PIAA Class AA title. The 2003 Quips, led by Darrelle Revis, lost to archrival Beaver Falls before winning the PIAA crown.
“They shouldn't look at it as pressure but as excitement,” said Revis, now an All-Pro cornerback for the New York Jets. “They have a chance to rewrite history in the record books.”
This pursuit of perfection was the last thing on Mike Zmijanac's mind when Aliquippa arrived at North Allegheny's Newman Stadium on Friday with a 14-0 record to play District 6 champion Richland.
The Quips coach is full of wit and wisdom, refusing to fall for any provocation of what Aliquippa could accomplish this season.
“That's going beyond the moment,” Zmijanac said. “Those are things you look back on if you're able to accomplish them. Our goal is to win. We'll worry about all those things afterwards, the things we did and did not do.”
Perhaps his reluctance comes from having a coaching staff of Aliquippa alums ranging from the late 1970s to the late '90s. No need to cause internal strife, right?
“You know what? I agree with what Mike says: They don't see a point in making comparisons. You're talking different eras, different classifications, different levels of competition,” said Don Yannessa, who turned the Quips into a perennial powerhouse in the '80s. “Aliquippa was bad between 1965, when Aschman retired, to 1972, my first year as coach. They were 14-59. One thing that's been constant is that they've been good, except that one era.”
These Quips have been absolutely dominant. They rank first in the WPIAL in both offense and defense, averaging 411 yards a game and allowing only 81. They have invoked the mercy rule a dozen times and beaten opponents by an average of 46 points with six shutouts and six more games with seven points or fewer allowed.
That's not what impresses Zmijanac most. Of his 42 players, 18 are honors students. They don't cause problems, except for foes.
“What's special about them has nothing to do with football,” Zmijanac said. “They really are a good group of kids who are good citizens, good students and good people. That's what I'll remember most about them, no matter how many wins they have. It's a special group on that front. They like each other. I like the way they carry themselves.”
Whether they are the best Aliquippa team ever remains to be seen. After beating Richland, 37-21, the Quips advanced to next Saturday's PIAA Class AA final at Hersheypark Stadium, where they will play another undefeated in the winner of Saturday's Imhotep Charter-Wyomissing semifinal.
“You hear people arguing about it, whether this is the best Aliquippa team ever,” Henry said. “If we don't win states, we can't say we're the best team ever. That's why we're trying to win states, so we can prove it with an undefeated record. It means so much, to be the best team in this small town. You can carry that on for life.”
Which would be just perfect.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.