When Aliquippa and Beaver Falls renew their rivalry Saturday at the Pit, it will be the 85th installment of one of the longest-running matchups in Beaver County history.
The first game was played in 1920, with Beaver Falls pitching a shutout, 33-0. The programs have met almost annually since then. There were periods where the rivalry was put on hold due to the teams playing in different classifications at the time.
“I think the rivalry thing is a little overrated, because good teams always bring the best out in other teams,” Aliquippa head coach Mike Zmijanac said. “They’re all special because they’re in Western Pennsylvania. It’s football.”
First-year Beaver Falls head coach Nick Nardone also downplayed the significance of the rivalry.
“A lot of people around want to blow this game out of proportion and make it bigger than it is,” Nardone said. “To us, it’s the first game. It’s our first chance to get in full pads and play a live game.”
The Quips lead the all-time matchup 48-31-5 and have dominated the series of late, winning seven of the last eight games. The one loss? Last year in the WPIAL Class 3A championship game.
The Tigers avenged a 44-13 week one drubbing to Aliquippa, prevailing 35-22 in the rematch at Heinz Field. It was their first win against the Quips since 2009 and launched Beaver Falls to its first PIAA state championship.
Last year marked just the fourth time the programs have clashed in the postseason and only the second instance with a WPIAL championship at stake; Aliquippa edged Beaver Falls, 8-6, in the 2008 WPIAL Class 2A title game. The Quips won on blocked punt by Maurice Carter that rolled out of the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
“The game was decided by a safety,” then-Beaver Falls head coach Ryan Matsook said after the game. “You can’t walk away and think one team got their butts kicked. It was a heckuva game. One team had to lose. Unfortunately it had to be us.”
Matsook stepped down in the offseason after 11 years at the school, and Nardone, the team’s defensive coordinator the last two seasons, was promoted to head coach.
“We want to be contenders every year,” Nardone said. “Whether it’s a young team or an experienced team, at Beaver Falls we expect to be contenders every year—we expect to be fighting for playoff spots, and hopefully, playing for championships.”
Aliquippa has championship aspirations once again and is widely considered among the top teams in Class 3A again. But Zmijanac, who’s entering his 21st season with the Quips, says there’s no pressure.
“There’s no pressure playing football,” Zmijanac said. “This is fun. We expect people to give us their best shot. That’s we hope—that we are good enough for that to happen—and you get measured that way.”
While both teams run some variation of the modern-day spread offense, everything else about the programs harken back to the glory days of Western Pennsylvania.
Both teams play on grass dirt fields, a throwback in an era where high-end turf fields are popping up all over the map. Beaver Falls’ stadium sits next to a railroad, and the constant rattling of passing trains during practices and games is a reminder of the once-thriving steel mill industry.
To an outsider, Aliquippa’s stadium appears to be an eyesore with its fading wooden bleachers and crumbling concrete foundation. To Zmijanac and his former players, the Pit is revered as sacred ground, a shrine to the school’s rich football history.
Aliquippa has been to nine straight WPIAL championships, an incomprehensible number when considering the depth and talent annually on display in Western Pennsylvania. Among the smallest schools in the state, the Quips consistently play up in classification and have averaged 10 wins for three-plus decades.
For a region that lacks the resources of larger and wealthier districts, the area is a breeding ground to high-caliber athletes.
“I like to believe these communities have such a melting pot of kids, that it lends itself to that,” Zmijanac said. “The best from all the different ethnic groups seem to rise to the top, and they all can play.”
Aliquippa has produced a slew of NFL players, including Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, Ty Law, and Darrelle Revis.
“The steel mill mentality is still here,” Zmijanca said. “Back then, you go up and down the river there’s coal mining—it’s the toughness, the hard-nosed mill workers and coal workers—it’s maintained itself.”
Legendary quarterback Joe Namath starred at Beaver Falls before leading the New York Jets to a stirring victory in Super Bowl III. Dwight Collins, who played at Beaver Falls and Pitt as a wide receiver, is an assistant coach for the Tigers. His son, Dante, is part of a talented junior class.
Lance Jeter starred on the football team as a wide receiver and led the Tigers to the 2005 PIAA Class 2A basketball championship. Another Jeter—Donovan—anchored the defense on last year’s state title team and now plays at the University of Michigan.
“I think it’s just a tough, hard-nosed area,” Nardone claimed. “This was an area built on steel mills, and you get people that grew up with dads who worked in the mill and were taught to be tough—not to make any excuses and to go do your job.”
There will be no excuses when the two teams meet in the Pit Saturday. This rivalry was forged from that mentality and Western Pennsylvania has come to expect it.