Head football coach Mike Zimjanac has paced the Aliquippa sideline for 21 seasons and been a part of several memorable games against rival Beaver Falls.
Despite the history between the two storied programs, Zimjanac believes the rivalry bit is a little over-blown.
“I think the rivalry thing is a little overrated, because good teams always bring the best out in other teams,” Zimjanac said.
Aliquippa and Beaver Falls will be meeting for the 85th time Friday. The teams have met nearly every year since 1920 in one of Beaver County’s longest-running rivalries. They didn’t meet for periods in the late ‘70’s, ‘80’s and early ‘90’s due to playing in different classifications, but have squared off every season since 1996.
The two teams last met in November at Heinz Field in the WPIAL Class 3A championship game. The Tigers avenged a week one loss to the Quips, downing their rivals, 35-22, to capture their first WPIAL title since 1984. That victory would propel Beaver Falls to its first-ever PIAA state championship.
Graduation hit the Tigers hard, as only one starter returns for first-year head coach Nick Nardone. Long-time coach Ryan Matsook stepped down in the offseason after 11 seasons at the helm. Nardone served as the team’s defensive coordinator the last two years and is looking past the rivalry, focusing on his team’s first game.
“It’s our first chance to get in full pads and play a live game,” Nardone said. “And for the kids to show the coaching staff they’re understanding what we’re teaching them.”
“We’re just going to treat it like any other game, and do our best to continue each week to improve.”
Aliquippa (1-0) is widely considered the best team in Class 3A, led by senior star Kwantel Raines and rising junior Marlin Devinshore. The Quips opened the season blanking Ohio State recruit Marcus Hooker and New Castle, 24-0, last week. Raines sat out due to injury but is expected to play this week.
Junior Avante McKenzie rushed for 181 yards and a touchdown in the win over New Castle. Senior Tariq Jones added another rushing score, and junior William Gipson hit junior Deveon Crute for a 21-yard touchdown strike.
Gipson and fellow junior Eli Kosanovich will split time under center, and both players saw the field in week zero. Zimjanac is looking for more consistency out of the quarterback position this season after displaying a conservative approach last year.
“We’ve always done what we had to do to get there,” Zimjanac said. “Last year, we had a rookie quarterback and big offensive lineman, and we just did what we had to do.”
“We were very conservative, and played good enough defense and ran the ball well enough, we didn’t need to get fancy.”
The Quips feature a big and physical offensive line once again led by senior Dajour Fisher and junior Solvaughn Moreland. Both players are also key cogs on the defensive line, too.
In addition to Fisher and Solvaughn, Aliquippa is loaded defensively with playmakers, and Raines and Devinshore are the headliners. Despite Raines’ absence, the Quips limited New Castle to just 86 yards on the ground and forced a safety.
Friday the Quips will focus on slowing down Beaver Falls (0-0) running back Torian Leak. The senior was fourth on the team in rushing last year and scored 12 touchdowns. Nardone will lean heavily on his only returning starter in 2017.
“He has all the talent in the world so we try whatever way you possibly can to get him the ball,” Nardone said. “We’re not going to let teams think we are just going to feed him and feed him.”
“But that same point, he is our workhorse—he will carry the load no doubt.”
Expect to see both senior Adam Brady and junior Dayln Brickner at quarterback for the Tigers. Brady, who stands at 6-foot-5, has the bigger arm of the two, but Brickner is just as capable dropping back and throwing the ball. A dynamic offensive threat, Brickner will also see time at wideout. Sophomore Noah Vaughn might also take snaps and is the team’s starting fullback.
“We have a plethora of athletes we can get the ball to,” Nardone said. “They’re a young team, but they’re very athletic. I’m excited to see what they do.”
Defensively, the team’s secondary of Brickner, Leak, and senior Kani Jones-Thomas will be crucial in helping stop the Quips’ rushing attack. Up front, junior Dante Collins, the son of former Pitt wide receiver Dwight Collins, will lead a young linebacking corps.
Missing from this year’s matchup is Malik Shepherd, Beaver Falls’ leading rusher from last year’s state title team. Shepherd transferred to Aliquippa but was ruled ineligible by the PIAA.
Beaver Falls elected not to play a week zero game and instead faced Riverside in a scrimmage at Geneva College last Friday.
The game was originally scheduled for Saturday, but remnants of Tropical Storm Harvey are expected to batter the area this weekend, prompting officials to make a schedule change.