How do you top an instant classic like last year’s PIAA Class 4A championship battle waged by Aliquippa and Bishop McDevitt?
Well, we’re about to find out.
Two of the premier programs in the state are set for a championship rematch one year in the making at 7 p.m. Thursday at Cumberland Valley High School, and both appear to be peaking at the right time. The Quips (13-0) carry a 25-game winning streak into the contest, while the Crusaders (12-1) have won 12 in a row after nearly knocking off Class 5A finalist Imhotep Charter in a season-opening 19-14 defeat.
Last year, McDevitt raced out to a 13-0 lead less than three minutes into the game before Aliquippa stormed back to win its fourth state title, 34-27. The Quips are now 4-4 all time in PIAA championship games as they enter their ninth championship appearance, while the Crusaders are 1-4 all time going into their sixth state title game.
With both teams bringing back nearly all of their starters from 2021, many fans have been anticipating this showdown all year long — and each team has held up their end of the bargain while obliterating nearly every opponent in their paths.
“You never know with injuries, but it kind of was inevitable that we’d probably face each other again,” said McDevitt coach Jeff Weachter. “The good news for us is that we’re better than we were last year. The bad news for us is that Aliquippa is better than they were last year, too.”
Aliquippa coach Mike Warfield didn’t necessarily have his crystal ball out ahead of time, but he’s not surprised to see the same opponent standing across from his Quips again at the end of the season.
“We didn’t look ahead. We just had to handle our business,” Warfield said. “We handled our business, they handled their business, and here we are.”
So far this season, Aliquippa is outscoring its foes, 513-121, winning by an average of more than 30 points per game. Meanwhile, the Crusaders have been even more dominant, outscoring opponents by a combined score of 646-102 — good for an average margin of more than 40 points per game.
Star running back Tiqwai Hayes rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s title game to punctuate a spectacular freshman season for Aliquippa, and he has been every bit as stellar as a sophomore. He is expected to be a full go on Thursday night after exiting last week’s 31-10 PIAA semifinal win vs. Allentown Central Catholic with a minor lower-body injury, according to Warfield.
Hayes is now up to 1,911 yards and 32 touchdowns on 237 carries, while his backfield mate Jon Tracy has 749 yards and 11 TDs on 114 carries. The pair combined for 226 yards and four scores in last year’s title game, so Weachter is already well aware of the damage they can cause.
“[Tracy] is pretty good, too,” Weachter said. “He scares you, because he’s so fast and quick.”
When Warfield and his defensive staff examine McDevitt’s offense, there is no shortage of key players to focus on slowing down. It starts with quarterback Stone Saunders, a highly touted sophomore who holds scholarship offers from Georgia, Michigan, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, Pitt and several other Power Five schools. Saunders has passed for 3,416 yards and 49 touchdowns with only two interceptions on the year, and he has no shortage of weapons at his disposal.
The Crusaders feature a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in senior Tyshawn Russell (57 receptions, 1,213 yards, 18 touchdowns) and junior Rico Scott (63 receptions, 1,152 yards, 17 touchdowns), as well as a four-year starter at running back in Marquese Williams (143 carries, 1,378 yards, 26 touchdowns). McDevitt also has a stout offensive line that may be the toughest test Aliquippa’s notorious “trench dawgs” face all season.
“Just the talent, just based on the athleticism that they have, they’re impressive,” Warfield said. “I think their second team long snapper is good. It’s definitely going to be a challenge all the way across.”
Although the Quips’ stout offensive line and powerful rushing attack garner most of the attention, junior quarterback Quentin Goode remains one of the best-kept secrets in the WPIAL. He exhibits tremendous poise in the pocket and has a much stronger arm than his 5-foot-8, 164-pound frame would suggest. On the season, Goode has passed for 1,909 yards and 22 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
And oh, by the way — he’s 26-1 as Aliquippa’s starter.
“One of the reasons I think they’re a better team this year is their quarterback has improved a lot,” Weachter said about Goode. “They’re throwing the ball a little bit more, and their passing game is better than what it was last year.”
All in all, this has the makings of one of the greatest championship clashes in recent memory, with history hanging in the balance for both teams. The Crusaders are seeking their first state title since 1995, having lost their previous four championship appearances, and this could be their most talented team ever. The Quips, on the other hand, are on the verge of winning back-to-back state titles for the first time in their storied history — as well as the program’s first-ever undefeated season.
And in case you forgot, Aliquippa is doing this as a Class 1A-size school that doesn’t even have its own field. Not that that has ever stopped the Quips from doing the impossible before.
“I’m doing this for the kids. I think that’s something they want,” Warfield said about the perfect season. “I know they’re geeked up for that. I don’t think any Aliquippa team has ever done that. This team is always looking to set a new standard. That would definitely be a new standard for us.”