The cities of Aliquippa and McKeesport have much in common.
Aliquippa, the largest city in Beaver County, sits nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, while McKeesport, situated at the confluence of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers in Allegheny County, resides at the forefront of the region’s historic Mon Valley.
Both cities now bear the scars and hard-earned pride gained from forging much of Western Pennsylvania’s identity as the region, which built the United States through fantastic feats of manufacturing throughout much of the 20th century.
Then there’s football.
When No. 1 seed Aliquippa (11-0) faces No. 2 McKeesport (11-1) at 8 p.m. Friday at Acrisure Stadium, the teams will square off with more than just WPIAL supremacy in Class 4A and the chance to remain alive for a PIAA title on the line.
Tigers coach Matt Miller will lead his team into the WPIAL championship game for the first time since 2016. His intention will be to restore McKeesport to the stature it once held, winning four WPIAL titles and two PIAA crowns, as one of the state’s former Quad A traditional powers.
“It would be everything,” said Miller of his program, which yielded legendary names such as former coach George Smith and ex-NFL linebacker Brandon Short, winning a WPIAL championship. “We are getting such a huge response from the community right now. Everybody is all on board. It would mean a lot to the community, the school and, obviously, to the football program.”
For Aliquippa, the aim will be not about restoring but maintaining one of the most dominant championship dynasties in the history of WPIAL football.
The Quips have advanced to the district title game each of the past 16 seasons. After winning its 19th WPIAL championship last fall, Aliquippa made a run to the PIAA Class 4A title game for the second consecutive season.
With names like Pro Football Hall of Famers Mike Ditka, Ty Law and Darrelle Revis as alumni, it’s not hard to imagine what winning another WPIAL title would mean to the current crop of Aliquippa players.
Quips coach Mike Warfield said he and his staff have been intently attempting to keep their players focused ahead of another trip to the North Shore home of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pitt Panthers.
“I think, for me, and I think the kids, I’m trying to keep them in the mindset of we have to prepare,” said Warfield, who has won three WPIAL and two PIAA titles in five seasons at his alma mater. “We can’t get to Friday until we take care of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That’s my main focus and we will let the chips fall where they may.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of us because when you do that you lose focus on what you need to do relative to preparation.”
Each team’s preparation should be aided by their recent history against each other.
Aliquippa has knocked McKeesport out of the WPIAL semifinals in two consecutive seasons.
“I know they’re excited, we played in the semifinals the last few years,” Warfield said. “Our players are gone, some of their players are gone. They have a lot of kids back, so I know they’re looking forward to it, and we definitely are as well.”
In 2021, the Quips won a 27-21 double-overtime thriller before rolling to a 42-7 victory in 2022 to end the Tigers’ playoff campaigns in consecutive years.
“It’s nothing personal, but, yeah, they’ve kind of stopped our year the last couple years,” Miller said. “The championship is the most important part. The revenge part is second.”
Miller said his team is focusing on the healthy respect it has for Aliquippa.
“We don’t have any fear of anybody,” he said. “Two years ago, we had the game and just lost it. They find ways to win. I definitely have the utmost respect for them because they find ways to win games and they do it year in and year out.”
And that respect begins with the Quips offense.
Junior running back Tiqwai Hayes, a Penn State recruit, is among the most sensational playmakers in recent WPIAL history. He has rushed for 1,634 yards and 18 touchdowns on 187 carries.
Hayes joins running back John Tracy and Pitt linebacker recruit Cameron Lindsey to form a daunting ground game with which any defense has to contend.
“We’ve got to be solid against the run,” Miller said. “We can’t let Hayes go crazy and get a bunch of yards. We’ve got to make sure that there are no big plays. That’s kind of what we were trying to do last week, the same thing, against Montour.
“Montour was a big-play offense,” he added. “We tried to limit their big plays. We were successful in doing so. Hopefully we are able to do the same this weekend.”
Big plays also certainly come from Aliquippa quarterback Quentin Goode.
The signal caller affectionately known as “Cheese” has passed for 1,573 yards and 21 touchdowns with four interceptions on the season.
Goode will be the first Aliquippa quarterback to start in three consecutive WPIAL championship games.
“I think that experience helps, but we can’t rely on that,” Warfield said. “We just can’t be complacent. We have to definitely come in and play because they’re a really good football team. You can see it on tape. Some of the teams they played, they just outmanned them up front. We’ve definitely got to be ready up front to compete.”
McKeesport’s offense will operate out of its unique triple-option flexbone attack.
Senior quarterback Garrett Tarker will pilot the Tigers ground game, which features heavy doses of senior fullback Keith Spell, alongside his freshman phenom brother, Kemon, and Anthony Boyd.
Keith Spell has rushed for 659 yards and 10 touchdowns on 93 carries, while Kemon Spell has added 481 yards rushing and 11 scores.
Boyd has rushed for a team-high 1,300 yards and 13 TDs on 169 carries.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Warfield said. “They’re a very good football team and coach Miller and the coaching staff always have their guys ready to play. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited for the kids to see how they perform.”
Warfield said remaining disciplined will be critical for the Quips if they hope to contain the Tigers rushing attack.
“We are going to have to play sound football, read our keys,” he said.