By Matt Popchock
Three minutes on the clock. 96 yards separating the Quips from victory. Zero timeouts remaining. One unforgettable pass from Mikal Hall to Devon Walker.
The history of Aliquippa football is already as illustrious as can be. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of room in the history books–not to mention the storybooks–for that quarterback-receiver duo after Aliquippa (13-0) earned its elusive and unprecedented 14th WPIAL title with a 14-7 come-from-behind win over Jeannette (12-1).
“Hope you were happy watching the Penguins,” Aliquippa head coach Mike Zmijanac said with a laugh after one of the most memorable Saturday nights of his career.
Okay, so the timing of ROOT Sports, one of our beloved sponsors, was not necessarily impeccable in this instance. But those with the wherewithal to catch its tape-delayed coverage of the 2011 WPIAL Class AA Football Championship have most likely found it worth the wait.
As exciting as it was to see Kris Letang rally from a broken nose to defeat the Canadiens, it was just as exciting to see Hall rally the Quips from a broken spirit to defeat another team in red and blue that is just as reputable in its own sport.
“You don’t get to be 12-0 by accident. Jeannette is a wonderful program. I said those things about them to the papers because I meant them, and those kids played their hearts out,” Zmijanac said.
Jeannette’s heavy-hearted running back agreed.
“We just kept working. We knew no matter how many hard opponents we played, we just had to keep playing. I thought we came to play. We just came up short,” said an emotional Jordan Edmunds afterward.
Fittingly, the most important drive of Aliquippa’s season began with momentum generated by its defense, which led Class AA by allowing only eight points per game entering the title bout. Dravon Henry, who was held to 56 yards on 16 carries, found another way to contribute by stopping Anthony Canady on fourth and goal, a harbinger of Henry’s eventual game-clinching interception.
That last stand was made possible by the absence of normally reliable kicker Seth Miller, whose sudden illness obligated Roy Hall not to try for the three. But even though Jeannette lost that particular battle of attrition, one can’t blame Hall for conceding such difficult field position. If anything, it heightened the drama of what ensued.
“I thought we had a good chance to stop them. But you know Aliquippa, they can score anytime, from anywhere,” Jeannette head coach Roy Hall said. “You can’t take anything away from them.”
There was still plenty of it on the Quips, who were trying to escape their own real-life “Groundhog Day” after two crucial turnovers had killed drives that could have otherwise tilted the outcome of this championship bout. So with time ticking away, and the length of Heinz Field separating his team from immortality, Mikal Hall did his best Big Ben impression.
He started in the huddle by giving his teammates the most important motivational speech of their collective high school careers.
“I told them to shut up,” Hall laughed.
Sufficed to say, he did not spot a reasonable facsimile of John Candy sitting off in the distance.
“All that was on my mind was hurrying up the offense and getting in the end zone,” he added.
“Actually, Mikal was getting a little antsy with me because I wasn’t sending in the plays fast enough,” Zmijanac lightheartedly agreed.
That’s okay, because the magic didn’t lie within Hall’s words. It lied within his arm, and within the way his teammates supported him when it mattered most.
After a halfback option pass to a wide open Walker was overthrown, Kaylan Kenney made a pretty grab down the same sideline for 32 yards, then converted a pivotal 3rd-and-4 with a nine-yard catch to Jeannette’s 38-yard line.
“The defense was playing off [the ball], so we took a couple shots downfield,” Mikal Hall said.
Unfortunately for the Jayhawks’ sake, all their prevent defense did, in this instance, was prevent them from winning.
“We just couldn’t get enough pressure,” Roy Hall said.
After No. 7 made that play, Mikal Hall continued playing like the other aforementioned No. 7, methodically hurrying his offense into Jeannette territory.
“I truly think, at the end, them having only one timeout, even though we had none, helped us out, because they couldn’t get organized. It really played into what we were doing,” Zmijanac said.
Davion Hall, who, like the rest of Aliquippa’s offensive leaders, had been relatively quiet that night, pulled in a 12-yard pass, followed by a 14-yarder to the Jeannette 12 before Roy Hall tried to stop the bleeding and regroup his defense by calling that last timeout with 1:40 left.
There was no stopping the Quips this time, however, as Henry gashed the Jayhawks for seven more yards to put them on the doorstep.
For the better part of 59 minutes and 31 seconds, Jeannette had successfully jammed the door, but Aliquippa kicked it down–while saluting its also rich basketball heritage–when Mikal Hall found Walker with the gridiron equivalent of a fadeaway jumper. Walker did the rest with a five-yard jog to victory and put a slam dunk on the comeback with an important two-point reception.
“We kind of wanted to come back to him, though I have confidence in all my receivers,” Mikal Hall said, alluding to the failed gadget play.
“I have a three-year starting quarterback and three receivers who know what they’re doing, and know what it’s about,” Zmijanac said. “That’s how championships are won…by overcoming mistakes.”
Aliquippa has now won an unprecedented 14 of those in the WPIAL playoffs, and prior to this one, Darrelle Revis, Pudgy Abercrombie, and others who had contributed to the unparalleled excellence of the program had come to town and attended team practice to help inspire the next generation. Mikal Hall and Devon Walker, among others, have now earned the right to breathe the same rarified air.
There was no Revis–at least not in uniform–at Heinz Field Saturday. Or Terrelle Pryor. Or Jordan Hall. Or Ty Law. Or Mike Ditka. But regardless of whether the football futures of these Quips are remotely as bright, this year’s WPIAL Class AA title game should be remembered as one of the greatest ever played in that venue.
Zmijanac, being the sage veteran he is, knows the bottom line:
“Now these guys get to be legends too.”
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)