Jaren Brickner and Josh Jenkins are senior quarterbacks and two of the most experienced at their position in the WPIAL. Brickner is a four-year starter and Jenkins a three-year starter, and both have passed for more than 5,000 yards in their careers.

Friday, one of them will play their final high school game, as their teams — No. 2 Beaver Falls (10-1) and No. 3 Sto-Rox (9-2) — meet in a WPIAL Class 2A semifinal at Ambridge. This kind of matchup of veteran signal callers with big career passing numbers doesn’t happen too often in the playoffs, something that could make this quite the entertaining game.

“They’re two kids that have been through a lot and seen a lot since they’ve been starting for so many years. It’ll be a good test on Friday to see who comes out on top,” Beaver Falls coach Nick Nardone said.

Brickner, who took over the starting job at Beaver Falls midway through his freshman season, has thrown for 5,560 yards in his career. Jenkins, who split the starting duties his sophomore and junior seasons, has thrown for 5,476 career yards.

This season, Jenkins and Brickner rank 1-2 in Class 2A in passing. Jenkins has passed for 2,128 yards and 28 touchdowns, while Brickner has thrown for 1,492 yards and 11 touchdowns. A season ago, Brickner led the class in passing (2,579 yards) and Jenkins (1,471 yards) was third.

First-year Sto-Rox coach Marvin Mills applauded Jenkins for his play this season, adding that offensive coordinator Darrien Fields has played a big part in Jenkins’ development. Fields played quarterback at Aliquippa and is the all-time leading passer at Marietta College.

“Obviously, he’s a seasoned vet,” Mills said of Jenkins. “He’s definitely our leader offensively. He can drive us down the field and he’s able to come to the sideline and talk to coach Fields. He’s definitely gotten into the playbook and with watching film. It’s definitely helpful to have a kid like that.”

Nardone feels the same way about Brickner, a rare 5,000-1,000 player. Brickner has rushed for 1,191 yards in his career and ran for two scores in Beaver Falls’ 52-0 quarterfinal win against Ligonier Valley. Nardone said Brickner’s passing numbers are down this season because the team has relied more heavily on its rushing attack.

“He’s got a ton of experience,” Nardone said. “It’s comfortable knowing that he’s been there and has seen a lot. There’s not much he hasn’t seen before. He’s a leader. When it gets to crunch time, having that confidence and experience means a lot.”

This won’t be the first time Brickner and Jenkins face off in the playoffs. Beaver Falls topped Sto-Rox, 43-30, in the 2020 Class 2A championship. In that game, Brickner passed and rushed for scores, and Jenkins passed for two scores and rushed for one. Beaver Falls lost to Serra Catholic in last year’s final.

In the other semifinal, No. 1 Steel Valley (10-0) will square off against No. 4 Neshannock (11-1) at Montour. Steel Valley has been one of the most dominant teams in the WPIAL this season. The Ironmen own the No. 1 scoring offense (46.2 points per game) and No. 1 scoring defense (6.4 ppg) in the district. Overall, the Ironmen have outscored opponents, 462-64. Senior quarterback and Kent State recruit Cruce Brookins has rushed for 1,381 yards and 29 touchdowns, while passing for 625 yards and six touchdowns. Brookins had a monster game last week, running for 333 yards and six touchdowns in a 46-13 quarterfinal win against McGuffey.

Neshannock also has a quarterback with huge rushing numbers. Senior Jonny Huff has collected 1,826 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground and 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air. He ran for 126 yards in a 30-27 quarterfinal win against Washington. Neshannock’s lone loss came to Beaver Falls, 22-0, on Sept. 23.

Class 4A

What is arguably the most anticipated semifinal matchup in any class will take place at Canon-McMillan when No. 1 Aliquippa (10-0) takes on No. 5 McKeesport (11-1). It’s a rematch of last year’s semifinal won by Aliquippa, 27-21, in double overtime. Quentin Goode’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Jayace Williams was the difference.

In order to reach the final for a 15th consecutive season, Aliquippa must get past McKeesport once again in a contest that is not short on prolific runners. Aliquippa features sophomore running backs Tiqwai Hayes (1,468 yards, 25 touchdowns) and John Tracy (465 yards, 8 touchdowns), while McKeesport counters with senior quarterback Jahmil Perryman (1,411 yards, 22 touchdowns) and senior running back Bobbie Boyd (1,151 yards, 14 touchdowns). Hayes was the star of last year’s meeting, one in which McKeesport coughed up a 14-0 lead. Hayes carried the ball a whopping 44 times for 229 yards and three touchdowns.

Both teams also boast outstanding defenses. McKeesport has the No. 1 scoring defense in Class 4A (7.6 ppg) and Aliquippa is second (9.7 ppg). All but one of Aliquippa’s wins has come by double digits. Likewise with McKeesport, which lost to Thomas Jefferson in the regular-season finale.

Speaking of Thomas Jefferson, the Jaguars are in the semifinals for the 24th time in 25 years. The third-seeded Jaguars (8-3) meet No. 2 Central Valley (10-1) at North Allegheny in what is the sixth meeting between the two powerhouse programs. Thomas Jefferson defeated Central Valley, 20-7, to claim the Class 3A championship in 2015. The teams combined to win five WPIAL and four PIAA titles the previous three seasons. All of Thomas Jefferson’s came in Class 4A and Central Valley’s in Class 3A. The Warriors, who won the past two PIAA Class 3A titles, made the move to Class 4A this season.

The only blemish on Central Valley’s record came in the form of a 35-24 loss to Aliquippa in the regular-season finale, a defeat that put an end to the Warriors’ 36-game win streak. Senior running back Bret FitzSimmons has had a huge season for Central Valley, rushing for a Class 4A-best 1,605 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Thomas Jefferson has one of the best quarterback-receiver duos in the class with juniors Brody Evans (1,910 yards passing, 19 touchdowns) and Sean Sullivan (45 catches, 880 yards, 11 touchdowns). The Jaguars have won five in a row since a 3-3 start. A key to the surge has been a defense that has given up only 26 points in the past five games. Coach Bill Cherpak will be looking to collect his 301st career win. Last week, he became only the fourth coach in WPIAL history to reach 300.

Class 3A

Of the 16 teams playing in Friday’s semifinal round, no team is likely considered a heavier favorite to win a championship than Belle Vernon. The top-seeded Leopards (8-2) will try to move one step closer to securing their first title since 1995 when they battle No. 4 Freeport (10-1) at Gateway. Freeport has never won a WPIAL title.

Belle Vernon, which lost to Aliquippa in last year’s Class 4A final, is appearing in the semifinals for the sixth year in a row. The Leopards own the No. 1 scoring defense (9 ppg) and No. 2 scoring offense (38.8 ppg) in the class. They continue to be led by junior running back Quinton Martin (994 yards, 24 touchdowns), who ran for a season-high 208 yards and three touchdowns in a 55-7 quarterfinal win against East Allegheny.

Freeport is in the semifinals for the first time since 2015. The Yellowjackets fell to Elizabeth Forward in the quarterfinals the previous two seasons. Their only loss this fall came way back on Sept. 16 when they fell at Class 4A Armstrong, 49-7. They have won seven in a row since, including a 42-6 triumph against West Mifflin in the quarterfinals. Senior running back Ben Lane ran for 169 yards and four touchdowns to increase his season totals to 1,075 yards and 23 touchdowns.

In the other semifinal, No. 2 Avonworth (10-1) will play No. 6 Shady Side Academy (7-4) at Fox Chapel. Shady Side Academy making it to this point is sort of a surprise. Since starting the season 1-4, the Bulldogs have ripped off six consecutive wins, including a 31-17 upset of No. 3 Elizabeth Forward in the quarterfinals. Senior wide receiver Joey Bellinotti scored a touchdown to give him a team-best 13 on the season while putting the Bulldogs in the semifinals for the first time since 2008. Avonworth has won nine games in a row since losing at Central Valley, 37-22, on Sept. 2. During that stretch, only two opponents have reached double-digit point totals against the Antelopes. Senior running back Luke Hilyard leads the team in rushing with 1,178 yards and 15 touchdowns. 

Class 1A

Bishop Canevin (11-1) isn’t unbeaten, but the Crusaders have won 11 games in a row since a season-opening loss to Steelton-Highspire and have claimed 19 consecutive wins against WPIAL foes. The top seed and defending champion Crusaders will put those impressive streaks on the line when they play No. 5 South Side (11-1) at Peters Township.

South Side’s only loss was to Laurel on Oct. 14. The Rams have a potent rushing attack that includes four players with at least 400 yards rushing — junior Ryan Navarra (744 yards, 13 touchdowns), junior Brody Almashy (547 yards, 13 touchdowns), senior Parker Statler (501 yards, 11 touchdowns) and senior Alex Arrigo (469 yards, 6 touchdowns). The Rams hammered No. 4 Mapletown, 47-6, in the quarterfinals to reach their first semifinal since 2018.

While South Side owns the No. 2 scoring defense in Class 1A (8.1 ppg), Canevin ranks first in that category (7.7 ppg). Over its past eight games, the Crusaders have surrendered a total of 33 points. They beat perennial power Clairton, 29-6, in the quarterfinals behind 256 yards rushing and a touchdown by junior Marquis Carter. On the season, Carter has amassed 1,463 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Crusaders play two quarterbacks — junior Jason Cross and sophomore Kole Olszewski — and have a big-play threat in senior wide receiver Xavier Nelson (36 catches, 1,086 yards, 17 touchdowns).

While some likely predicted Canevin and South Side would meet in the semifinals, good luck finding anyone who picked Union (9-3) and Rochester (7-4) to get there. Union is the No. 10 seed and Rochester is No. 14. The Big 7 Conference rivals will square off at Freedom. Union has already beaten No. 7 Burgettstown and No. 2 Laurel, and Rochester has taken down No. 3 Greensburg Central Catholic and No. 6 Fort Cherry.

Union won at Rochester, 6-0, on Oct. 7. Braylon Thomas scored the game’s only points on an 11-yard touchdown run with just 35 seconds left. Thomas, a junior quarterback, passed for 211 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns last week against Laurel. Rochester got a big performance from sophomore running back Antonio Laure in its quarterfinal victory. Laure ran for 187 yards and four touchdowns to put him at 1,234 yards and 24 touchdowns this season.

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.

Brad Everett

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at beverett@unionprogress.com.