HERSHEY, Pa. — The moniker of being a legend is usually reserved for those who have been around for a long, long time, but Uncle Don wasn’t shy in proclaiming Tiqwai Hayes as exactly that.
After a 141-yard, three touchdown outing at Hersheypark Stadium Thursday night to clinch the PIAA Class-4A championship, it’s hard to believe that Hayes is only 14 years old, but the Legend of Tiqwai Hayes is the Legend of Aliquippa now. And he does it for the community behind him.
“Like, you see ‘em, they stand here, yelling for me,” Hayes said after the win. “That’s big Uncle Don right there. Without him, I wouldn’t know my holes or nothing. … That’s like my father, that’s like my dad. I just love this community.”
As Hayes stood along the far side of the field, Uncle Don’s voice rang out through the cold, night air. “Aye! You a legend now!”
Legends are forged through adversity
Aliquippa head coach Mike Warfield stood in the locker room at the half of a 20-20 game, already having come back from a 13-0 deficit. And the message from the Quips players was clear: Pound the rock.
“We knew at some point, and we’ve been saying this ever since we watched the tape on them, at some point, it was gonna get grimy,” Warfield said. “It was who was gonna be able to withstand it? And we came in at halftime, and our kids said let’s run the ball, they are wearing down. So, that’s what we did.”
Hayes carried the ball 12 times in the first half, racking up 75 yards and a touchdown. He carried the ball 20 times in the second half, racking up 66 hard, hard yards and two more touchdowns. But it was the importance of two 1-yard runs that defined the day for Hayes — and Aliquippa.
Aliquippa and Bishop McDevitt traded punts to open the second half, and with just under nine minutes left in the third quarter, the Quips orchestrated a 16-play, 79-yard drive that faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. With a 20-20 deadlock, the Quips needed points, but Warfield never had any doubt that his players would convert.
Hayes dove into the end zone from just inches off the goal line, capping a nearly perfect drive in which he and teammate Jon Tracy pounded the ball right through the heart of the Bishop McDevitt defense.
Hayes scored another touchdown, a high-stepping score off a pitch from eight yards out, but it was another 1-yard run that was just as important as either touchdown.
With just over two minutes remaining in a one touchdown game, Aliquippa either needed a first down conversion or a long punt on fourth-and-one inside their own territory. With Hayes in the backfield, and the big guys upfront practically begging for the chance, Warfield went for it.
“It was from day one, all I did was work hard, work hard, work hard, work hard and it paid off,” Hayes said. “And I got the ball when we needed it.”
Hayes took the handoff from Quentin Goode, followed his blockers to the left side of the line and dove across the line to gain to clinch the first down — and the PIAA championship.
“No doubt, no doubt,” Warfield said. “My big guys said, ‘Hey, we running this.’ So, I leaned on them and even when it’s fourth and one, I was back and forth with that call, but I said, ‘We got this,’ and my guys on the left side said run behind them and we got No. 23, the freshman back there running hard, let’s do it. Let’s do it. We’re leaving everything out on the field.”
Legends are built from a strong foundation
With Aliquippa coming off a game on Friday, the turnaround from a win over Jersey Shore in the PIAA semifinals was quick. And Warfield didn’t waste a single day in preparing for Bishop McDevitt.
The Quips traveled to Penn State Wednesday for a day of practice and then continued onto Hershey, Pa. for some late-night film work. It was the sort of late to bed, early to rise mentality as the Quips hit the field for practice at a local high school, went back to the hotel and ran through a walkthrough before the game. Warfield wanted no wasted days.
“It showed,” Warfield said. “To be down 13 in the state championship and not blink, not blink and fight back, all the credit goes to those kids.”
The come-from-behind victory continued a trend throughout the playoffs for Aliquippa, battling Laurel Highlands in the WPIAL playoffs, conquering McKeesport in double overtime to make it to Heinz Field and winning the WPIAL against Belle Vernon once finally making it to Heinz. The Quips even trailed Jersey Shore by double digits in the early going.
“So, these kids, to go down again, what was it, 13-0? … To come back and fight, stay the course, believed in what they were being told and you saw it,” Warfield said. “This is the essence of teamwork.”
And there isn’t better teamwork on Aliquippa’s roster than the bonds fostered between the offensive and defensive lines. Even if they make life difficult for Hayes sometimes, he wouldn’t be where he is now without them.
“They be bullying me at practice and stuff, because I’m a freshman, they make me pick up bags and equipment, but at the end of the day, I just love those guys,” Hayes said. “They gave me big pushes, like you see that fourth and one right there, they just pushed and bullied those guys.”
Neco Eberhardt, an anchor on the offensive and defensive lines for the Quips, said the dominant two-way play of the line has been fostered through years of playing together since starting as freshmen and the fruits of such labor have been especially sweet — even when compared to Hershey bars.
“It feels good, but we put the work in,” Eberhardt said. “So, if we just kept putting the work in, we knew we’d come here, and we just handled business.”
After a loss to Thomas Jefferson in last season’s playoffs, Eberhardt said the line had been working hard to get back to the playoffs, and all the pieces finally clicked together this season offensively and defensively. And while the strong line play has provided the foundation for Quips football, it hasn’t just been Hayes who benefited.
After completing 2-of-4 passes for 11 yards in the first half, Goode finished the game with 127 yards with just one incompletion in the second half, and it seemed like each pass he threw down the stretch outdid his last. Tracy provided the Quips with 75 yards and a touchdown of his own on the ground, pairing with Hayes in a ground-and-pound offensive assault. Cyair Clark and Taijer Thornton provided Goode with contested catches to move the chains, Clark racking up 75 yards through the air.
With Hayes’ freshman season complete, a WPIAL-record of 1,720 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground, he’s not just building a legend. As Uncle Don said, he already is one.