It’s doubtful anyone around here will mind – or disagree – but you can put Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac in the category of those excited for the Washington High School football team to again be competing for a WPIAL title.
“Places like Rochester, Jeannette, Washington and Aliquippa, people there care about their football programs,” Zmijanac said. “It’s not like some schools where the only people in the stands are the parents of the kids. It’s a community effort. I think it’s great that they’re back.”
Wash High will meet Aliquippa at Heinz Field today at 5 p.m. in the WPIAL Class AA championship game. For the Quips, it could be title No. 15. Wash High will be vying for its seventh championship after winning in 1917, 1920, 1923, 1926, 1993 and 2001.
The matchup not only pits two similar, football-obsessed communities against one another, but the game is a rematch of the 1952 WPIAL Class AAA championship game, which Aliquippa won, 13-12, at Pitt Stadium.
It’s been five years since Aliquippa did not play for a WPIAL title, winning two times during that span. The Quips (12-0) have been here seven of the past 10 years.
Wash High has been rejuvenated under fourth-year head coach Mike Bosnic, who took over a team that finished 1-8 in 2008 and promptly went 6-4 in 2009, 5-5 in 2010, 8-3 in 2011 and 12-0 this year, the first undefeated regular season for the Prexies since 2001.
“Aliquippa and Washington are two towns that have a great football traditions, and football means a lot,” Bosnic said. “Here, there wasn’t the recent success, but with us winning, it’s really brought a lot of excitement out in the community.
“It’s been very gratifying as a coach, and I’m sure for the kids, to see everyone get behind us.”
Zmijanac joked this week that he’d gladly find an apartment in Aliquippa for Wash High running back Shai McKenzie, though it’s doubtful McKenzie would enjoy the arrangement; last year, in a 36-6 win for the Quips that ended Wash High’s season in the Class AA quarterfinals, McKenzie had zero rushing yards.
This year, McKenzie has 2,656 and 41 touchdowns – breaking school and area records for yards – and needs just 85 more to eclipse Rushel Shell’s WPIAL mark of 2,740 from 2009.
Which, of course, will be easier said than done when playing a team like Aliquippa, one that’s allowing only 39.8 rushing yards per game and features as many as five NCAA Division I prospects.
“It’s hard to game plan for Aliquippa because they’re solid everywhere,” Bosnic said. “Usually, you can find a weakness or a matchup you like, but it’s difficult with Aliquippa because they’re good at every position.”
There are at least 12 teams out there that would agree – those Aliquippa has throttled.
The Quips are not only averaging a WPIAL-best 52 points per game, but they’re giving up 3.5 points per contest. Or, put another way, about a touchdown every two weeks.
“They’re real physical,” Wash High fullback/linebacker Jaylin Kelly said. “We have to come out and play just as hard as they do. We’re as good as anybody. That’s why we’re here.”
Aliquippa, like Wash High, relies on the run, as evidenced by the fact that nobody else other than these two teams rushed for more than 4,000 yards this season.
Dravon Henry is the team leader with 116 carries for 1,316 yards and 21 touchdowns. Terry Swanson gives the Quips two 1,000-yards backs with 91 carries for 1,028 and 17. Quarterback Malik Shegog has completed 53 percent of his passes for 526 yards and seven touchdowns.
In last year’s quarterfinal matchup, Mikal Hall threw for three touchdowns in the first half to push Wash High out of its comfort zone and make the Prexies play catch-up.
The plan this time, naturally, calls for fewer big plays allowed and more McKenzie.
“I hope it’s better this time around,” McKenzie said. “They’re still a really good team, and we’re going to have to make some adjustments to get through that defense.”