Varsity Xtra: Perfect matchup a rare moment
In a battle of unbeatens between Alquippa and Washington at Heinz Field, the only question is who will raise the trophy at the end?
Pine-Richland coach Clair Altemus gets a hug from Neil Walker after defeating Thomas Jefferson for the 2003 Class AAA championship.
Some prayers are answered: Gateway coach Pete Antimarino, left, and his son, Pete Jr., pray for the Gators to stop North Hills' two-point conversion attempt in the 1986 title game. Gateway's Todd Washington intercepted the conversion pass as the Gators upset the nation's top-ranked team, 7-6.
Clairton wide receiver Kevin Weatherspoon catches the winning touchdown pass as Rochester's Tony Whiteleather tries to defend in the fourth quarter of the 2006 WPIAL Class A championship game at Heinz Field. The Bears won, 16-13.
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The Aliquippa-Washington Class AA championship game is most unusual from the fact that it features three 1,000-yard rushers -- two for Aliquippa and one for Washington.
But never mind the individuals, this truly is a perfect matchup.
Aliquippa and Washington both bring perfect 12-0 records into today's title game at Heinz Field -- and that's what really makes the contest unusual. One might think that two undefeated teams playing in the title game is old hat, but in reality it is fairly uncommon.
Ever since the WPIAL started playoffs for all classifications in 1977, this will only be the 17th championship game matching teams with perfect records (undefeated and untied).
"Really?" Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac asked. "I thought it would've been more."
Nine of the perfect matchups have come since 2005. But since 1977, there have been 139 championship games and only 12 percent have matched perfect teams.
You could call them dream matchups and Aliquippa has participated in more of them than any other team since '77. The Quips have been in four title games that have matched undefeated and untied teams.
"The real truth of this is how fabulous it is to get just this far without anyone being able to beat you," Zmijanac said. "It's hard to do. It may not seem like it, but it's very difficult and I don't think people appreciate how hard it is just to get to this game with an undefeated record. Being undefeated after 12 games, playing with high school kids, and everyone wanting to beat you ... it's quite a feat.
"A guy from a newspaper asked myself and my coaches this summer if we ever get upset that our staff hasn't been able to win back-to-back championships. I told him that might have been the dumbest question ever. Do you know how many teams never even get to the championship game?"
Back in the day, all championship games matched undefeated teams. Until 1971, the WPIAL did not have playoffs. The league had only championship games and teams had to be undefeated to play in the title game. If there were more than two undefeated teams in a classification, Gardner Points decided which two would play for the championship.
Sometimes, if only one team was undefeated in a classification, it was declared the champion without a title game.
Then in 1971, the WPIAL started a few playoff games in two classifications. In 1977, playoffs started in all classifications. In 1980, the WPIAL added a fourth classification (AAAA).
Games matching undefeated teams with big reputations can draw large crowds.
"From the interest standpoint, teams' records do help draw people, but maybe not as much as people wanting to see who is there," said Tim O'Malley, executive director of the WPIAL. "I think the Washington running back [Shai McKenzie] has gotten enough [attention] that people might want to come just to see him."
McKenzie has been superb, rushing for 200 yards or more in 10 of 12 games. He has 2,656 yards this season and is averaging 12.4 yards a carry. For Aliquippa, Dravon Henry and Terry Swanson have both rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
"Getting there and being undefeated is a great honor," Zmijanac said. "One team is going to lose and be devastated -- and they shouldn't be."
Some of the perfect matchups in the championships have provided some memorable games. Here is a look at the other 16 games since 1977 that have matched undefeated and untied teams.
North Hills had become USA Today's No. 1 team in the country that week. An estimated Three Rivers Stadium crowd of 20,000 watched a battle between two teams that had played to a scoreless tie in the title game a year earlier. Gateway scored in the fourth quarter on a QB sneak by Terry Smith and Bill Truschel kicked the extra point. North Hills scored with two seconds left on Joe Smithco's 18-yard touchdown pass to Greg Morris. There was no overtime back then, so North Hills went for two on the extra point. With Gateway coach Pete Antimarino on his knees praying with son, Pete Jr., Smithco's pass was intercepted by Todd Washington.
North Hills quarterback Eric Kasperowicz, who was later named a Parade All-American, threw two touchdown passes to Rich Rapp and Bryon Hobbs. North Hills also had a freshman running back in LaVar Arrington, who rushed for a game-high 99 yards on 14 carries to give coach Jack McCurry his fourth WPIAL title.
Nate Stewart was the star as he rushed for 262 yards on 23 carries to help coach Joe Hamilton win his fourth WPIAL championship. The 262 yards is second-best in any championship game played at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field.
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko completed 7 of 9 passes for 183 yards as the Indians rolled to the win. Kellen Campbell also scored on three touchdown runs for the Indians. It would be the first of three consecutive championships for West Allegheny.
Aliquippa star quarterback Josh Lay could only play on defense in the second half because of an injured hand. So Quanear Gaskins, the kid called "Peanut" by his teammates, came on and completed his only pass for a 27-yard touchdown to Quentin Goode in the fourth quarter to give Aliquippa the win. Lay intercepted two passes on defense to help coach Mike Zmijanac win his first title.
Thomas Jefferson's No. 1 goal was to shut down Pine-Richland star receiver Neil Walker, who would months later become a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Major League Baseball draft. The Jaguars limited Walker to no yards offense, but Pine-Richland's Greg Hough's rushed for 121 yards.
Seton-LaSalle jumped to a 28-0 lead and held off a furious Aliquippa comeback in the highest-scoring final in WPIAL history. Seton-LaSalle quarterback Bill Stull completed 19 of 35 passes for 323 yards, receiver Carmen Connolly caught nine passes for 178 yards and running back Brandon Bogdanski carried 25 times for 169 yards and scored four touchdowns.
Connor Dixon completed 11 of 20 passes for 221 yards and also intercepted a pass on the final play of the game to preserve the win for South Park.
Rochester had won five WPIAL titles in seven years, but Duquesne kept the Rams from another gold trophy. It was the Dukes' first title since 1993. Layton Dunn rushed for 121 yards on 29 attempts.
It was the first WPIAL title for the Bears since 1989. Rochester got two touchdowns from Derek Moye, but Clairton's winning touchdown came in the fourth quarter when freshman Kevin Weatherspoon made a diving catch of a Leroy George pass for a 22-yard touchdown play.
Thomas Jefferson's Orlando Torres, nicknamed "The Streakin' Puerto Rican" by his teammates, had one of the best championship games of any running back in the past 25 years when he rushed for 248 yards on 44 attempts. Thomas Jefferson's defense held Montour to five first downs.
Gateway's bid for a title came up short again as the Gators lost in the championship game for the third time in five years. Bethel Park's defense limited Gateway to 107 yards offense. Bethel Park's Lyle Marsh rushed for 113 yards on 27 attempts.
Aliquippa actually outgained South Fayette in yardage, 357-242, but the Quips were hurt by four fumbles. South Fayette scored twice in the second half on Christian Brumbaugh's 5-yard pass to Zach Challingsworth and Trevor Fiorentini's 2-yard run.
Rochester was averaging 37 points a game, but Clairton's defense held the Rams to 64 total yards and recorded the shutout victory. Quarterback Desimon Green ran 26 yards for a score in the first quarter and threw a 21-yard TD pass to Trenton Coles in the fourth.
In Aliquippa, it should now be known as "The Drive." Trailing, 7-6, Aliquippa drove 96 yards in 2:32 and scored the winning touchdown with 29 seconds left. Mikal Hall threw an 11-yard pass to Devon Walker.
The Vikings were no match for mighty Clairton, which won its fourth WPIAL championship in a row. Clairton's defense was superb, holding Sto-Rox to minus-28 yards rushing. Tyler Boyd ran for 141 yards on 12 carries and scored three touchdowns.
First Published November 23, 2012 12:00 am