By Matt Popchock
Whenever you hear the phrase “Greetings and welcome to the machine,” if you listen to The Fan on a regular basis, you automatically think of “Seibel, Starkey & Miller,” our afternoon drive program.
If you’re “Mr. High School Sports,” however, you think of Aliquippa as “the machine”–a football machine. The Quips are the perennial favorites in the Midwestern Conference, they’ve won more WPIAL titles than any team in history with 13, and the program has served as a pipeline to the NFL from one generation to the next.
Beaver Falls may not be a machine, but one might be so inclined to call the Tigers “the little engine that could.” Despite not having the same postseason success or program depth as their conference rivals, the Tigers remain very much a factor in the conference title chase for yet another season, not to mention one of the few teams in Class AA capable of holding its own against a team of Aliquippa’s caliber.
By the way, they’ve sent a few players to the NFL too.
Senior quarterback Wes Nesmith will succeed the versatile Carlin Henderson, who graduated after seeing time at both QB and receiver his senior year. His surname sounds kind of like that of a certain Beaver Falls football legend…and, admittedly, the similarities abruptly end there, except for the fact he looks like a pro-style quarterback. Nesmith completed eight of 12 attempts for 69 yards and one touchdown in sparse playing time in 2010.
But the real “Broadway” star of Beaver Falls is senior tailback Trey Hall, who has received offers from Pitt and Akron. As a freshman at New Brighton, Hall drew positive attention by rushing for 1,000 yards at a program that hasn’t drawn a lot of positive attention in recent memory. He then transferred from that fledgling program to Beaver Falls and has been a staple of head coach Ryan Matsook’s offense ever since.
He’s certainly going to be the number one weapon in the Tigers’ arsenal in 2011, and most appropriately, he ended the 2010 regular campaign with 1,111 rushing yards, the fifth-most in Class AA. Hall finished with 1,399 on the season, averaging 7.5 yards per carry, and 20 TD’s on the ground, making him one of the most prolific scorers in the WPIAL. In addition, he caught 19 passes for 215 yards and another touchdown.
The high school championships don’t just go to the best teams. They usually go to the teams that have the best players. Look at last year’s WPIAL champs, for example. North Allegheny had Alex Papson, one of the most productive running backs in the district. South Fayette had Christian Brumbaugh, who enjoyed the best season by any quarterback in WPIAL history. Clairton had Desimon Green, one of the most heavily recruited defensive linemen in the state. Even Central Valley leaned on Robert Foster, one of western PA’s rising stars. Hall has proven himself an elite player, which would seem to put Beaver Falls in the title conversation.
The first team All-MAC honoree isn’t the only reason the Tigers averaged nearly 30 points a game, though. He’ll be surrounded again by a capable supporting cast.
Running backs Rob Bell and Damian Rawl gained valuable experience last year and can be used to spell Trey Hall. The junior and sophomore, respectively, combined for 231 yards and four touchdowns. Losing Trey Collier and Dean Dinell is tough, and although the backfield needs to count on a younger offensive line to do its duty, that group still has a lot of potential, especially sophomore guard Brock Boxen.
If Nesmith also grows up in a hurry, it could give Beaver Falls a more balanced attack. Senior Alex Clark only caught one TD pass last season, but he led the receiving corps with 332 yards on 23 catches. Royce Watson had a team-high three receiving touchdowns as a junior, and he’s proven he can be a deep threat after racking up 286 yards on just 12 catches.
The majority of the Tigers’ 2010 starters are back on defense as well, and if the “D” continues to improve, they just might rack up even more “W”s coming off a ten-win season. The graduation of leading tackler and Pitt recruit Devin Cook (one of three first team all-conference players on defense who has moved on) is a damaging loss at linebacker; nevertheless, Beaver Falls has reason to believe it can defend the run and pass with equal effectiveness.
Clark shared the team lead with four interceptions as a junior defensive back in 2010, and senior free safety Deyne Richardson also had four picks last year, while Clark contributed four pass deflections and Richardson finished second on the Tigers with 30 solo tackles (38 total). Brock Boxen started making a name for himself on the defensive front with 19 total tackles, two sacks, and two forced fumbles.
His brother, Trey Boxen, is one of several underclassmen who may see a lot of playing time at linebacker, which makes one wonder if this team will be softer over the middle. Last year Beaver Falls allowed 15.1 points per game, which ended up seventh in the classification, and that might be a tougher average to maintain, but again, they aren’t without leadership on that side of the ball.
Their biggest test has been and will continue to be aforementioned Aliquippa, or, for that matter, any team with an athletic offense that can strike quickly. The Quips humbled Beaver Falls at The Pit 27-14 early last season, handing the Tigers their only regular season loss, but also essentially squashing their conference title hopes. They did it by being relentless on offense and out-executing the Tigers, which is pretty much how eventual WPIAL champion South Fayette whipped them in the Semifinals following impressive wins over Steel Valley and Keystone Oaks.
Furthermore, time will tell if the disparity at quarterback could be an Achilles’ heel in big games. In contrast, you know a team like Aliquippa is in good hands with Mikal Hall at the trigger, and you also know that team has underclassmen who have played beyond their years.
Beaver Falls hasn’t won district gold since 1984. The Tigers were nipped by the Quips in 2008 in a defensive slugfest at Heinz Field. They are five wins from No. 600 in program history, which would make them just the eighth WPIAL school to accomplish it–including Aliquippa–and they return a lot of confident players with a high collective ceiling who believe they have their best chance since 2008 to make further history.
However, not to put too much pressure on any team so early, but there’s a very strong chance the Week 2 meeting between those ’08 finalists at Geneva College’s Reeves Stadium will be the definitive barometer for Matsook’s 2011 squad.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)