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Aliquippa HC Mike Warfield Goes into Fifth Season with High Expectations and a Talented Team to Match

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Mike Warfield

Aliquippa High School football is coming off an incredible 2021 season, where they won the Class-4A WPIAL title over Belle Vernon High School and then the PIAA title shortly after.

The victory marked the second time in four years that the Quips had won both the WPIAL and state titles in the same season. Those four years also marked the amount of time that head coach Mike Warfield started in charge of the program.

Prior to Warfield’s arrival in 2018, Mike Zmijanac coached Aliquippa for 17 seasons from 2001-17. During his reign, the team won six WPIAL titles, but just one PIAA title.

Warfield came into the head coaching job at Aliquippa under difficult circumstances after the school board, controversially, released Zmijanac to go in a different direction.

In spite of all the initial backlash, Warfield is now leading the Quips to new heights that they haven’t reached before and success that home fans thought they should’ve achieved all along.

Heading into this upcoming season, the team brings back most of its starters from the season prior, putting expectations high for fans that this team will win another state title, becoming the first in school history to win back-to-back state titles.

Aliquippa Vs Belle Vernon WPIAL Championship – November 27, 2021 Michael Longo/PSN

Warfield and his team are preparing for Friday night as they travel to take on Armstrong High School in their season opening game. Despite the pressure to succeed, Warfield is keeping his team focused on taking it one game at a time and not looking too far down the road.

“I think our focus is where it needs to be,” Warfield said. “We got to stay healthy, we got to stay conditioned. So, I think, what I’ve seen so far is our seniors coming into camp, really focusing and not being overly confident, but confident enough to continue to want to be better.”

The players that return from last year’s team are some of the most exciting, talented and tough players that Aliquippa fans have seen in their lives.

Starting at running back, sophomore Tiqwai Hayes broke out for an incredible 2021 season in his first year. He ran for over 1,700 yards and 23 touchdowns, earning Freshman All-American honors from Max Preps and 2022 Preseason Max Preps Sophomore All-American Football Team. He also holds offers from Power 5 schools, such as Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia, Michigan and Cincinnati.

Warfield said that during his time as head coach, Hayes is the most impactful player in their first year for Aliquippa. He credits that much to his understanding of running the ball early on.

“I think as a younger kid, coming in as a ninth grader, he ran like a 12th grader,” Warfield said. “Most of the time when kids come in at that age, they’re looking for the home run. I think he was more concerned about just hitting the hole, the way he needs to hit it and then let the chips fall where they may once he comes out of it. It was impressive to see him get more reps, get more experience and become more mature about how to run the ball, and how we expect him to run the ball.”

Joining Hayes in the offensive attack includes junior running back John Tracy, who ran for 586 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 90 carries as his backup. Both Hayes and Tracy will continue to make life miserable for opposing defenses this upcoming season.

While the running game serves its purpose, Aliquippa are a changed team under Warfield, who allows them to throw the ball. Warfield served as quarterbacks coach for nearby Central Valley High School for three seasons before joining Aliquippa.

This might sound strange, but the Quips were, for at least the previous half-century before Warfield’s arrival, a tough, running team that did not pass. This worked well in the regular season, but later on in the WPIAL and in the PIAA playoffs, teams were able to stifle the Quips by putting more defenders in the box and stopping the run.

Warfield uses the run game and a solid passing attack to beat defenses and create opportunities for everyone to succeed. Junior John Goode serves as the signal caller for Aliquippa and comes off a season where he threw for 1,927 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2021.

Aiding him on offense are wide receivers in senior Donovan Walker and junior Brandon Banks, who both hold numerous Division I offers. Walker caught 15 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns and Banks provided support on special teams, scoring four times on punt returns last season.

Most of the offense’s success, according to Warfield, is led by the offensive line. The space they make for the running backs and the time they give to the passing game ensures the offense is a versatile threat throughout.

Since those players also perform effectively on the defensive line, they earned the nickname, “Trench Dawgs,” last year. Four of the five players from this unit return this season, which includes senior guards/defensive tackles Neco Eberhardt and Jason McBride, junior center and defensive tackle Braylon Wilcox and senior tackle/nose guard Naqaun Crowder.

Warfield hadn’t heard of the “Trench Dawgs” nickname until later in the 2021 season and said that as long as they lived up to the name it wouldn’t bother him. Clearly, the WPIAL and PIAA titles speak for themselves when it comes to those players’ work effort.

“It’s a matter of, we know playing at this level, it’s won and lost up front,” Warfield said. “So, I think that’s what they mean by that, that the game is won in the trenches and that’s what we focus on every day.”

The defense itself is highlighted by junior linebacker Cameron Lindsey. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Lindsey is one of the most talented and feared linebackers in the WPIAL. He amassed 86 tackles, 22 for a loss, two forced fumbles, two sacks and two interceptions both returned for touchdowns last season to lead a stellar defense. For his efforts, he earned a slew of offers, which includes Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia and Cincinnati. Rivals.com also elevated him to four-star status this past March, as well. 

Lindsey leads the Quips’ defense, but other players like Walker and Banks also play important roles. Walker stars at safety, making 80 tackles, 13 passes defended and eight interceptions last season, while Banks made 42 tackles and four interceptions as a cornerback. Both players earned All-State honors for their efforts in 2021.

Courtesy Cameron Lindsey

Aliquippa players like Hayes and Lindsey are the ones receiving the most hype going into this season, but Warfield said that there are many other players who play important roles that don’t necessarily get the recognition they deserve.

Senior safety Nate Lindsey is one of those players and looks to return to full fitness after breaking his collarbone in the first playoff game last season. Other players include Banks, and both junior Demarkus Walker and sophomore Arison Walker, who both play wide receiver and safety.

Another player that Warfield mentioned was senior linebacker/fullback Isaiah Martinez.

“Isaiah Martinez is a very important piece of our puzzle,” Warfield said. “He’s our linebacker next to Cam Lindsey and he’s a leader. I think out of anyone, he deserves a lot more praise than what he’s gotten, but he’s not that type of kid that’s out looking or seeking it and he just continues to work every day.”

Warfield said that there are a few first-year and new players that are going to be important for the Quips going forward. First-years in offensive lineman, Justus Starks, who will play at guard and Cleaster Longmire who will play at linebacker and full back are some of those players. Others include sophomore linebacker/tight end Michael Gaskins and defensive lineman Kamari Mathews who transferred from nearby Beaver Falls High School.

After the season ended with great success, Aliquippa faced a new battle ahead in just the coming months. The PIAA Competitive Balance Rule started in 2018 and applies only to football and basketball. The state uses it to measure transfers and postseason success to put teams in a higher classification

For instance, if a team accrues six points (four for PIAA title berth, three for a semifinal berth, two for a quarterfinal berth, etc.) and three transfers, a school is reclassified up a division. The PIAA awarded The Quips four points last year — and six over the past two seasons. And with eight transfers, the Quips exceeded the limit.

The PIAA announced that Aliquippa would move up to 5A, despite having a 1A enrollment. Aliquippa voluntarily chose to play in 3A initially and then moved up to 4A due to the rule.

Warfield, the school board, community and former players like NFL Hall of Famer Ty Law came to present their appeal to the PIAA, which included the discrepancies between Aliquippa and 5A schools, their use of transfers and more.

Aliquippa won their appeal and will stay in Class-4A the next two seasons. Warfield said that he does not feel satisfied with the ruling.  He argues that the PIAA is not fairly applying the rule to Aliquippa and that the PIAA never started them at their initial enrollment when they implemented the rule.

“For me as the head coach, it was just me being responsible, looking out for the best interests of our student athletes,” Warfield said. “The rule still isn’t being fairly applied to us and I want what’s done right by our kids. So I’m not really satisfied about the ruling. We have to accept it and move forward, but you know, I’m not satisfied with it.”

The famous home ground of Aliquippa football, named the Carl A. Aschman Stadium, or famously known as “The Pit,” is undergoing renovation this year and won’t be available for play this season. The Quips will play their home games at nearby Freedom Area High School, which is about a 15–20-minute drive away.

Warfield says that the stadium renovation creates a unique situation that requires them to practice at different locations remotely. Still, Warfield said that he and his team understand the predicament they are in and know what they need to do to be successful going forward.

“The kids understand what’s facing us and our motto this year is no excuses,” Warfield said. “We can’t make excuses for not having a field if the field is not ready. Unfortunately, but we have to deal with it and move on and prepare like we were at home. That’s no excuse. Of course, we would love to be home. I would love to have the seniors playing some home games, but for the betterment of the program and for the future, I think this needed to be done.”

The upcoming schedule for Aliquippa pits them against some two close teams in the area in the Parkway Conference. This includes Ambridge High School, who moved up from Class 3A and which former Aliquippa football player and assistant coach, Sherman McBride serves as head coach and Zmijanac serves as a volunteer assistant.

It also pits them against Central Valley High School, which is about a 15–20-minute drive north of Aliquippa, that also moved up from Class 3A this season.

The Warriors currently hold a 28-game winning streak, which includes back-to-back WPIAL and PIAA 3A titles the past two seasons. They also hold a three-game winning streak over the Quips, which is all the games Warfield has faced them.

With the game between the two coming at the end of the regular season, on Oct. 28 at home for Aliquippa, the game could decide the Parkway Conference title and serve as a preview for a playoff rematch.

Warfield himself is not currently concerned about the game because it’s so far down the line. He said that his team will be ready to match up against Central Valley when it’s time, but they’re just focusing on Armstrong for now.

“It’s a situation where we have to handle our business before that day comes,” Warfield said. ” I have the utmost respect for [Central Valley head coach] Mark [Lyons] and his staff. I know he’ll have his team prepared and we have to match it. When that time comes, then we’ll focus on that.”

With all this experience returning, the Aliquippa players have high expectations from themselves and also from the media and fans who expect them to do well and repeat as WPIAL and State champions again.

Warfield said that he’s making sure his players stay composed and ready to take it one game at a time and not get too far ahead of themselves in 2022.

“It comes from within the locker room,” Warfield said. “We’re going to win it or lose it within the locker room. So, we can’t allow any distractions to deter us from coming to practice and preparing every day. So as long as we continue to do that, as long as we continue to stay focused, as long as we maintain our competitiveness. We let the chips fall where they may and walk up outta there knowing that we did the best we could. Really for kids, this age, that’s all you could do.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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