Quinton Martin admits that he and Tikey Hayes haven’t always been cool, the reason for that being that Hayes and Aliquippa knocked Martin and Belle Vernon from the WPIAL playoffs in Martin’s sophomore season in 2021.

“We weren’t very close at that point in time,” Martin said, laughing. “But over the years just talking to each other and getting in the recruitment process with each other, he’s a very nice dude. I talk to him a lot, I like him, and I’m excited to spend the two to three years that I’ll be with him at Penn State.”

Friday at Acrisure Stadium, these two Penn State running back recruits spent their time winning WPIAL titles.

In a stadium where “Sweet Caroline” is often played on fall Saturdays, two future Nittany Lions said, “We Are.” Specifically, we are WPIAL champions. Hayes, a junior, led Aliquippa to the Class 4A title for the third year in a row with a 35-21 win against McKeesport, while Martin, a senior, helped Belle Vernon repeat as Class 3A champs after a 26-0 win against Avonworth.

“It feels good knowing ‘Q,’ knowing that he is going to be my teammate, so I feel like getting this bond now is real special,” Hayes said.

On a day when Penn State wrapped up a 10-2 regular season with a 42-0 win against Michigan State, the future of the program could be found on the North Shore playing in back-to-back championships. A year after dominating in the title game, Martin played more of a complementary role Friday, finishing with 46 yards rushing on nine carries, five receptions for 25 yards, and a pass breakup defensively. Hayes rushed for 113 yards on 17 carries and added an interception on defense.

“It’s amazing,” Martin said. “Two in-state Penn State commits winning the WPIAL title, that’s special. Not many people do that.”

Martin said he and Hayes spoke earlier in the week to wish each other luck. Martin said he also got encouraging texts from Penn State coach James Franklin and assistants Ja’Juan Seider and Terry Smith.

Western Pennsylvania hasn’t produced many big-time running backs over the past few decades, but Martin and Hayes fit the bill. Rivals ranks Martin the No. 1 player in the state in the senior class and the No. 4 running back in the country, while Hayes is the No. 5 player in the junior class and No. 20 running back in the nation.

While Hayes is a safe bet to remain at the running back position in college, there’s varying opinions on where Martin might end up. Some feel Martin ultimately will become a wide receiver, while some project he will find a home as a defensive back or even linebacker.

“I feel like they’re going to find multiple ways to use me on the offense and possibly in a defensive way,” said Martin. “I’m not sure. I’ll find out when I get up there, but I’m definitely excited to see what they have planned for me.”

Martin said that while there is always some uncertainty moving on to play college football, he’s looking forward to experiencing the journey with his running back buddy Tikey.

“One-hundred percent,” Martin said. “We’re excited to get up there. We don’t know how it’s going to go. It could go 100 different ways. We just have to be prepared for any way it could go.”

Aliquippa’s Tiqwai Hayes jumps over McKeesport’s defense during the WPIAL Class 4A championship on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, at Acrisure Stadium. Aliquippa won 35-21. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Block party

Several Beaver Falls players produced strong outings in the team’s 14-12 win against Steel Valley in the Class 2A final, but only one player had a truly “special” performance.

The WPIAL does not keep records for title games, but if it did, there’s a good chance special teams ace Mike Blackshear might find himself in the record books for most blocked extra points in a game. A 5-foot-10, 160-pound senior wide receiver-linebacker, Blackshear — more like “Blockshear” — blocked extra points after both of Steel Valley’s touchdowns. And considering the final score, those blocks were the difference.

“We put our fastest guy on the edge and told him just to go as fast as he could,” Beaver Falls coach Nick Nardone said.

Who better to put on the edge than one of the fastest sprinters in the WPIAL? Blackshear doubles as a track standout who last season finished as the runner-up in the 200-meter dash at the WPIAL Class 2A championships. Blackshear has been timed as fast as 10.9 in the 100.

“Throughout this season we have learned a lot of things,” Nardone said. “One thing we have learned is how special special teams are. Because we lost three games early in the season to special teams. As the season pressed on we made sure the kids understood how important that was.”

Beaver Falls players celebrate after defeating Steel Valley to win the WPIAL Class 2A championship Friday at Acrisure Stadium. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

An assist from a former Steeler

When Beaver Falls scored the tying touchdown with 44 seconds left, Nardone said his original thought was to attempt the extra point, this despite the fact that the Tigers always go for 2 points after touchdowns.

But Nardone quickly was talked out of it. In Nardone’s ear was a former Beaver Falls star who a year ago spent time on the Steelers practice squad, none other than 2017 Beaver Falls graduate Donovan Jeter.

“I was going to kick it, but he came over to me and said, ‘Don’t kick this. Go for 2,” recalled Nardone. “So, I’m glad he was there. He changed my mind.”

Jeter became one of Beaver Falls’ assistant coaches midseason. Jeter was a two-sport star in his playing days with the Tigers, helping them win their first PIAA football championship in 2016 (Nardone was the defensive coordinator) along with a WPIAL football title and WPIAL basketball title. He went on to become a defensive lineman at Michigan and appeared in one game for the Washington Commanders last season. He most recently was cut by the New York Giants in August.

“[Linebackers coach] Jacarri Cleckley was like, ‘Donovan wants to come back and help.’ And I was like, ‘Bring him. Bring him,’” Nardone said. “I know where he’s been. I know what he knows. I know the knowledge he brings.”

Brayden Kirby (bottom left) and Lou Ryan (bottom center) are Fort Cherry football standouts who were showing off their mullets after their team’s win against South Side in the WPIAL Class 1A championship Friday at Acrisure Stadium. (Brad Everett/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Mullet mania

Inside the Acrisure Stadium interview room after Fort Cherry’s 42-28 win against South Side in the Class 1A final, coach Tanner Garry stood at the podium and star quarterback Matt Sieg sat at a table along with some teammates. Garry and Sieg may have the star power, but it was hard to miss the two players sitting to Sieg’s right.

Seniors Brayden Kirby and Lou Ryan aren’t just standout, two-way players for Fort Cherry, but the two also have marvelous mullets. The glorious cuts were on display for the media after Friday’s win.

Kirby, a tackle-defensive end, said that he and Ryan, a guard-linebacker, have had their mullets since 2020, with Ryan growing his about three or four months earlier.

So, who has the best mullet of the two?

“I don’t think I could [pick],” Sieg said. “They’ve worked hard on those for a while and they’re pretty good.”

Sieg said that while that mullet tandem has given him a sales pitch as to why he should join the club, growing one is not in his future.

“My mom is strongly against that and I’m strongly against that,” Sieg said, smiling. “I will never wear a mullet.”

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.