Central Valley football head coach Mark Lyons has spent this entire week preparing his team for their biggest matchup of the season so far against Aliquippa.
The Warriors are 9-0 and are facing an 8-0 team in the Quips. The game, the final of both teams’ regular seasons, will decide who wins the WPIAL AAAA Parkway Conference, determining who gets a better seed for the playoffs that start next week.
Each team is also on remarkable winning streak. Central Valley has won 36 games in a row dating back to the start of the 2020 season. They moved up to Class AAAA this year, but won the past three WPIAL AAA Championships, including the past two PIAA State Championships.
As for Aliquippa, they’ve won their past 20 games, which includes the WPIAL and PIAAA AAAA Championships last season.
The teams meet up for the first time since last season, when the Warriors beat the Quips on their home turf, 14-8. This matchup is the biggest between the two since the 2019 WPIAL AAA Championship game where Central Valley defeated Aliquippa, 13-12 in overtime.
This game takes place at Freedom Area High School. Aliquippa’s football stadium, known as “The Pit,” is undergoing renovation, leading the team to play their games at Freedom Bulldog Stadium.
Tickets for this game were in high demand and sold-out Thursday, unsurprising for one of the biggest matchups in Beaver County in recent years.
Lyons says that the PIAA’s decision to move from four classifications to six classifications means that these games are more important than ever. Teams that used to play every year and sustain long rivalries are now facing disruption for a variety of reasons such as a decline in enrollment or players transferring into a program.
“You’ve missed the local rivalries,” Lyons said. “You’ve missed the backyard battles amongst teams. If anything, that has allowed this to occur. We don’t get a lot of these anymore. You kind of miss those great matchups. The 6A classifications that came along kind of took that away. To us, and probably the people of Beaver County, this is important. It keeps a good, healthy rivalry between neighboring schools that share the same zip code, the ability to play a great game.”
For the Warriors, their offense is led by senior running back Bret Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons is rushing for 150.6 yards per game and this season, he has 97 carries for 1,355 yards and 24 touchdowns in the run-heavy Warriors offense.
Lyons is looking for big games from seniors in wide receiver/safety Jayvin Thompson, as well as quarterback Antwan Johnson. If Thompson makes some big catches on offense as a wide out and sets the defense as a safety, plus if Johnson makes those important throws and leads the offense, then Lyons knows his team will see success.
Helping them out on offense is a stellar offensive line. The line is a big part of the Warriors’ great rushing attack and overall play, as they are averaging close to 48 points per game.
On that offensive front, they returned three players from last year in seniors Jackson Tonya and Kaden Colville, and junior Nick McCreary. Two newcomers in sophomore Tyler Ondrusek and junior Tyler Costanza are also providing help for a unit that allows their team to run for 289.2 yards per game.
Aliquippa bring in two of the best players in the WPIAL in both sophomores running back Tiqwai Hayes and junior linebacker Cameron Lindsey. The pair hold a plethora of Division I and Power Five offers, but they signal a deeper trend in the football program that Lyons says makes them so tough of an opponent.
“They’re just so talented at a lot of spots,” Lyons said. “You got guys on that team that have been playing football since they were freshmen. When you can mix in talent with experience, not only playing experience, but experience in big games, and you’ve got something cooking.”
For both teams, this crucial matchup serves as the first big test of the season for them, in terms of playing an opponent of similar quality. Lyons said that he loves to coach these kinds of games. He also said that these matchups provide great opportunities for his players to be in the spotlight and to showcase their talents.
“We want our players to enjoy that,” Lyons said on the game. “They’re gonna be excited about it. They’re not gonna be nervous about it. They’re gonna welcome it because we talk about that and it’s also good for our school and our community.”
The matchup is also the fourth time that Lyons faces off against Aliquippa head coach Mike Warfield. Warfield served as quarterbacks coach under Lyons from 2014 to 2018 before he took the Quips’ head coaching job. Since Warfield’s been in charge, Lyons has come out victorious the past three times.
Lyons said that he and Warfield are not concerned about each other and are more focused on how their players perform on the field.
“This game is about our players and what they’ve done to get themselves in this position,” Lyons said. “What they’ve done to get an opportunity to play an archrival with a pretty good atmosphere. So, that’s my focus and I know that’s Mike’s focus.”
The drive from one school to the other is around seven miles each way, demonstrating how close these schools are. Players on each team bond in the offseason, work out tougher as well as cross paths on a consistent basis, something that Lyons takes pride in the rivalry.
“Again, it’s really special because, obviously, they’re our neighbors,” Lyons said. “Obviously, I know the staff really well and they know our staff. But, when 7 o’clock comes, I know both staffs, both sets of players are going to want to win the football game. Afterwards, we’ll shake hands. It’s mutual respect and we’ll move forward. When you have an opportunity to play a rival, someone you know, in a big stage, in a big game, that always makes it special.”
For the sold-out crowd witnessing one of the most important high school football games of the season, Lyons said that they’ll see two things. The first is that the two teams disciplined as they’ll put on an incredibly, competitive match.
“The action not just around the ball, but off the ball, is going to be intense,” Lyons said. “For the intensity that goes on, you’ll be shocked, it’s never been a lot of after the whistle stuff. Man, between the whistles, these guys are going to go at each other. The whistle blows, they’ll regroup, go into the huddle, come back and they’ll redo it again. There’s none of that extracurricular stuff that happens after the whistle and to me that’s what’s enjoyable about it.”