What’s in a rivalry game?

To some, it’s a game where you can “throw the records out the window,” where prior wins and losses are meaningless and playoff scenarios are put on hold until further notice. But what happens if you take some of the best rivalries the WPIAL has to offer, sprinkle in some conference championship and playoff seeding implications, throw them in a pot and stir them all together?

Well, then you’d have one of the most intriguing slates of high school football the WPIAL can put together — and that’s exactly what’s in store for the final week of the regular season on Friday night.

All in all, nine rivalry games will decide conference championships in Week 9, including a pair of showdowns between teams with perfect records in conference play. Those two winner-take-all contests will see only one team raising a conference championship banner at the end of the season, while seven other matchups feature teams that have already clinched a share of a conference title facing off with rival foes who hope to share the glory.

Class 2A No. 2 Neshannock will host No. 3 Mohawk in one of the two winner-take-all showdowns, while the other features Class 3A No. 3 Elizabeth Forward visiting No. 1 Belle Vernon in the PUP game of the week. In both matchups, the winner will have a strong argument for the No. 1 seed in the WPIAL playoffs, while the loser could very well tumble outside the top three. Needless to say, there’s a little more on the line than usual, and Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio is expecting quite a turnout in the battle for Lawrence County supremacy.

“We’ve had some pretty big crowds there in the past and have played in a lot of big games. With this being two Lawrence County teams, I’m expecting a huge crowd,” Mozzocio said. “I hope we get a huge crowd. If we don’t, something is wrong. If that place isn’t packed on Friday night, I would be really surprised.”

Both Neshannock and Mohawk enter Friday’s fray riding eight-game winning streaks after season-opening defeats, each having made it unscathed through the Midwestern Conference gauntlet that includes perennial power Beaver Falls and an explosive upstart in Western Beaver. And as Warriors coach Tim McCutcheon is quick to point out, that simply doesn’t happen often in the rugged conference affectionately known as the “MAC.”

“It’s pretty rare,” McCutcheon said. “The MAC conference is hard to get through undefeated, and both teams have gotten there. … It’s certainly unique. Good stuff, man.”

At the forefront of Mohawk’s surge is senior quarterback Jay Wrona, a four-sport standout and Youngstown State baseball recruit who leads the WPIAL with 30 touchdown passes through nine games. His favorite target is sophomore wideout Bobby Fadden, who leads the Warriors with 35 receptions for 608 yards and 14 TDs on the year — none sweeter than his one-handed snag for six in a 31-21 win against the aforementioned Western Beaver last week.

“[Wrona] can go pick up any ball that’s laying on the ground, and he would be the best one in the room with it. That’s just who Jay is,” McCutcheon said. “It’s a privilege to coach him and a privilege to coach this team in general.”

For Mozzocio and his players, last year’s WPIAL semifinal defeat is still fresh in their minds, and their main goal all season long has been to get over that hump and make it to Acrisure Stadium for the WPIAL title game. But first, one of the most anticipated senior night home games in school history awaits, with the undisputed conference title there for the taking — and all eyes in Lawrence County and beyond will be on Neshannock and Mohawk on Friday night.

“To me, this game, whoever wins it, in my mind, should most definitely be the No. 1 seed going into the playoffs,” Mozzocio said. “Just look at the teams you play here in the MAC this year. Week in and week out, there are battles. If we’re fortunate enough to win this game, we will be the only team left who hasn’t lost to a WPIAL opponent this year in [Class] 2A.”

As for McCutcheon, he believes there’s an extra layer of significance attached to this particular rivalry matchup, especially when compared to some of the similar conference-championship matchups taking place on Friday in larger classifications.

“The beauty of our conference is, these kids grew up together,” McCutcheon said. “You get up in those higher classifications, and there’s a lot of travel. They don’t know each other. They get to know each other in high school. These kids played against each other in Pee Wee.”

While there isn’t quite as much at stake elsewhere as there will be at Neshannock and Belle Vernon on Friday, several other matchups across the area will decide whether conference titles will be shared or secured for only one team to keep.

In the Class 1A Eastern Conference, No. 4 Clairton (7-2, 5-0) will travel to Jeannette (7-2, 4-1) in a battle between two of the premier small-school programs in the state. A win for the Bears would clinch the conference title outright, but the Jayhawks could open the door for a three-way tie with Clairton and Greensburg Central Catholic (6-3, 4-1) with a victory, provided the Centurions take care of business at Leechburg.

An anticipated clash for the Class 2A Century Conference crown will go down in Claysville, when No. 5 McGuffey (7-2, 5-0) hosts No. 4 Washington (8-1, 4-1) in a game that is always circled on both teams’ calendar. In fact, Highlanders coach Ed Dalton said it’s his team’s No. 1 goal each year to “Beat ‘W’” — even more so than winning a WPIAL, state or even “world championship,” as he put it. So with at least a share of the conference title already in hand, you can bet Dalton and his players are chomping at the bit to keep the crown all to themselves if they can pull off the victory on Friday.

“It is our No. 1 goal. We don’t shy away from it, either,” Dalton said. “It’s on our weight room wall, it’s on our locker room wall, it’s on every tweet we send. We don’t call them by their name. A lot of people in town don’t like that. It’s just what we’ve embraced.”

Shifting gears to Class 4A, all three conference championships are still up for grabs heading into the final week of the season. No. 1 Aliquippa (8-0, 6-0) has already clinched at least a share of the Parkway Conference crown, while No. 2 McKeesport (8-1, 5-0) already owns at least a split of the Big Seven Conference title, and Mars (7-2, 5-0) can lay the same claim to the Greater Allegheny Conference throne. Still, all three teams have major challenges to deal with on Friday in order to secure the conference championships outright.

For the Quips, an always-electric Beaver County battle at No. 5 Central Valley (7-2, 5-1) is sure to generate plenty of fireworks. The two teams last met in last year’s WPIAL Class 4A championship game, which Aliquippa dominated, 34-7, to win back-to-back WPIAL titles. The Quips also snapped the Warriors’ 36-game win streak in a 35-24 win in their first meeting last October. A win for Central Valley would make it at least a two-way tie at the top of the standings, with potential for a three-way split if No. 3 Montour (8-1, 5-1) staves off West Allegheny at home.

In the Greater Allegheny Conference, Mars will take its high-octane offense to Stone Field in North Park for a showdown with North Catholic (5-4, 4-1) in hopes of wrapping up the conference title outright. The Planets have won seven of their past eight games while scoring 40-plus points in six of them. The Trojans, meanwhile, have a chance to steal a share of the conference championship with a win.

Mars quarterback Luke Goodworth, left, speaks to junior receiver Liam Hein (19) and senior Aidan Alessio during the Planets’ 38-0 victory against visiting Armstrong at Mars Athletic Complex on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. (John Santa/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

And if you’re a fan of physical, smash-mouth football, you probably won’t want to miss the battle for the Big Seven Conference title between McKeesport and No. 4 Thomas Jefferson (8-1, 4-1). The Jaguars are notoriously tough to beat at home, and they know how important a win would be in terms of playoff seeding for what should be an unforgiving Class 4A playoff bracket. On the other hand, Tigers coach Matt Miller and his players remember last year’s loss against Thomas Jefferson in the regular-season finale, and a win in enemy territory Friday night would be the sweetest form of payback they could hope for.

“It’s what we were hoping for at the beginning of the season. This is where we wanted to be,” Miller said. “Last year we lost it, and we went from a potential No. 1 or 2 seed, and then we went all the way down to No. 5. This game is huge.

“I know we already share a piece of the pie, but we’d like to have the whole thing.”

Both the Allegheny Six Conference and Northeast Conference championships will be on the line in Class 5A, as No. 1 Peters Township (9-0, 4-0) hosts Bethel Park (4-5, 3-1) in a game that almost everybody is penciling the Indians in to win — although an upset win by Bethel Park would throw the entire Class 5A playoff picture into total chaos. That’s an outcome that Upper St. Clair (7-2, 2-2) is undoubtedly rooting for, as the Panthers need to beat South Fayette along with a win by either Bethel Park (at Peters) or Baldwin (at Moon) in order to qualify for the WPIAL postseason.

Finally, in one of the WPIAL’s most storied rivalries, No. 2 Penn Hills (7-2, 4-0) plays host to Woodland Hills (6-3, 3-1) in a game that could have major ripple effects throughout Class 5A — especially if the Wolverines pull off the upset. If they do, that would allow for a potential three-way tie at the top of the Northeast Conference standings, with defending WPIAL and PIAA champion Pine-Richland (6-3, 3-1) needing a win at North Hills to put itself in position for a share of the crown.

Aliquippa’s RB2 enjoys career game against Chartiers Valley

Although he has been overshadowed for much of his career at Aliquippa while sharing the backfield with Penn State recruit Tiqwai “Tikey” Hayes, John Tracy has been a steady contributor over the years for the two-time defending WPIAL Class 4A champions.

In last Friday’s game against Chartiers Valley, it was finally Tracy’s time to shine.

Aliquippa’s John Tracy runs past a Central Valley defender during the WPIAL Class 4A championship game on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, at Acrisure Stadium. Tracy has been one of the Quips’ unsung contributors during their run to back-to-back WPIAL titles. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Hayes was his usual productive self, taking the lion’s share of the carries and racking up 157 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown while surpassing 1,000 yards on the ground for the third consecutive season. But despite touching the ball only three times on offense, it was Tracy who stole the show, as the senior tailback totaled five touchdowns in five different ways for the top-ranked Quips in a 53-0 beatdown.

Tracy started the scoring on an 11-yard fumble return in the first quarter, then hauled in a 45-yard touchdown reception from Quentin “Cheese” Goode later in the quarter. He then scored on a 2-yard run in the second quarter, followed by a 45-yard punt return TD, giving him four scores in the first half. Finally, Tracy added a 70-yard kick return TD in the third quarter to cap off the scoring. His stat line brought back memories of Darrelle Revis’ iconic PIAA championship performance in 2003, when the Aliquippa legend scored five touchdowns in three different ways in a 32-27 win over Northern Lehigh.

For his career, Tracy now is up to 1,690 yards rushing and 33 total TDs. And with eight touchdowns so far in 2023, the senior is two scores away from reaching double-digit TDs for the third consecutive season.

Milestone watching

Going into last Friday, only six quarterbacks in WPIAL history had passed for more than 8,000 yards in a career — but not anymore.

Gateway senior Brad Birch became the seventh member of the 8,000-yard club with a vintage performance in a 48-20 win against Norwin, clinching the Class 5A Big East Conference title for the No. 4 Gators (5-4, 5-0). He completed 13-of-25 passes for 219 yards and four TDs on the night, giving him 8,160 yards passing and 97 TDs for his career. Birch, who began his career with a WPIAL Class 1A title as a freshman at Jeannette before transferring to Gateway, will now have a chance to join an even more exclusive club this Friday, when he attempts to become only the fourth QB in WPIAL history to pass for 100 career TDs.

Elsewhere, Trinity sophomore quarterback Jonah Williamson etched his own name into the record books in the Hillers’ 27-3 defeat against Linsly School, West Virgina. Williamson completed 17-of-26 attempts for 203 yards in the losing effort, making him the single-season passing yardage record holder at Trinity (5-4, 3-2) with 1,557 yards through the air. The dual-threat signal caller also leads the team with 769 yards rushing, giving him 2,326 total yards and 21 total TDs on the year.

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

Steve Rotstein

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