No. 8-seeded Freeport quite familiar with opening-round opponent, No. 1 Aliquippa
Austin Romanchak remembers the first time he started a game against Aliquippa.
It came three weeks into his sophomore year, at the brand-new Freeport Area Athletic Stadium, with an almost entirely brand-new Freeport starting lineup. Still, the green Yellowjackets more than held their own against the perennially powerful Quips, even leading by a field goal at halftime in an eventual 21-3 loss.
“I just remember I was treating it as another normal game and playing them physical,” said Romanchak, now a senior. “We were actually up at halftime before they came back in the second half. It was definitely a good experience playing a great team like that as one of my first starts.”
More and more it seems that games between Freeport and Aliquippa are becoming a yearly occurrence. Friday night’s WPIAL Class 3A first-round playoff game between the No. 8 Yellowjackets (5-4) and No. 1 Quips (9-1) will mark the fourth consecutive season the teams have met, including two playoff matchups.
Aliquippa won the first three, including a 36-14 victory in the 2015 WPIAL Class AA semifinals and regular-season triumphs the past two seasons, and the Quips will come into Friday’s game at Ambridge heavily favored as the top seed in the Class 3A bracket.
“Aliquippa’s the top,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said. ”(Our players) should embrace the opportunity to be able to play them, which I know that they will. That program’s like a legend in Western Pennsylvania football, so it’s an honor to be able to play with them. We’ll give it everything we have.”
The offseason featured significant change at Aliquippa, as Mike Warfield took over as coach after the school board decided not to retain longtime coach Mike Zmijanic, but little changed with the Quips’ on-field success once the regular season rolled around.
Behind a roster that includes three Division I-committed players and a few others with offers, Aliquippa overpowered most opponents on its way to a Tri-County West championship. The Quips outscored their opponents 504-47, their lone blemish coming in a 14-8 upset loss to Central Valley last week.
“Aliquippa’s known for winning,” said Warfield, a former Quips quarterback who previously was an assistant at his alma mater and Central Valley. “Our standards are high. If you go unbeaten and get to the championship and lose, they let you know that’s not good enough. We have to keep plugging away and work every day.”
The Quips advanced to Heinz Field each of the past 10 seasons, adding to the program mystique that also includes graduates like Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, Ty Law, Darrelle Revis and others.
This year’s team includes standouts M.J. Devonshire Jr., a highly recruited defensive back who needs one more punt-return touchdown to set a national record; star running back Avante McKenzie; Ball State commits Will Gipson and Solvauhn Moreland; and Duquesne commit Deoveon Crute, but the Quips’ talent runs even deeper than that.
“It’s a three-game series at this point,” Warfield said. “We’ve got to be prepared every game. We can’t take anything for granted. We preach that every day during the season.”
Freeport started 0-3 but won its next five games to clinch a playoff spot as the fourth-place team out of the Big East Conference. The Yellowjackets lost to Seton LaSalle in the first round last season.
By now Romanchak and some of his fellow seniors like Conor Selinger, Evan McCrae, Patrick Keeley and others have plenty of experience under their belts, so they’ve changed since that 2016 game.
“It’s always a challenge to play Aliquippa, obviously, being the great program that they have,” Romanchak said. “It’s always really fun to go against some of the best athletes around. It should be a good game. It should be fun.”