Richland’s defense has been among the best units in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference and District 6.
Tonight, the Rams will have to elevate their game to another level.
Undefeated in 14 games and ranked fourth in Class AA, Richland will face top-ranked and unbeaten Aliquippa in a PIAA semifinal at North Allegheny High School.
“We just have so much respect for them. It’s a great team. It’s going to be difficult to stop them,” Richland coach Brandon Bailey said. “They have great backs. They are athletic at every position. They’re well-coached. They’re one of only a handful of schools to ever score 700 points in a season.”
The Quips have tallied an eye-popping 709 points over 14 dates.
Aliquippa has not one, but two, 1,000-yard rushers – and both Division I prospects are juniors.
Coach Mike Zmijanac’s squad has put up 50 or more points in half of its games. The lowest point total, 34, came in the WPIAL title game against Washington High. The Quips rushed for more than 500 yards against the Prexies while winning their record 15th WPIAL crown.
Last week, Aliquippa scored 31 points in the first quarter en route to a 51-15 rout of Karns City.
“This group has worked very, very hard,” Zmijanac said. “These guys came up as freshmen and sophomores and played their way onto the field. They’re dedicated to what they’re doing from the weight room to the practice field.”
Junior running backs Dravon Henry (1,567 yards, 24 touchdowns) and Terry Swanson (1,299 yards, 20 touchdowns) have combined to run for 2,866 yards and 44 touchdowns. Aliquippa has rushed for more than 5,000 yards.
“They’re good players,” Zmijanac said. “We try to keep them fresh. I call the plays and I honestly don’t even know who’s carrying the football sometimes. They’ve been equally effective, but you’re only as good as the next game you play.”
The Rams defense will rely on experienced linemen, aggressive linebackers and a solid secondary.
Jacob Urban is the leading tackler, with 144 stops and has six sacks. Ben Verhovsek (124 tackles), Jared Hoover (123), Sam Finotti (108) and Elijah Metzgar (97) each average at least 6.9 stops a game.
Metzgar has a team-high 12 sacks, followed by Finotti with nine and Derek Crawford with eight.
The Rams have produced 17 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries for 33 takeaways.
Luke Shertzer leads with five picks, and Kyle Flick has four.
“First and foremost, they should get credit for shutting down Hickory and DeShawn Coleman,” Bailey said of the Rams’ holding WVU-bound Coleman to 85 yards in a 38-12 state quarterfinal win. “That’s a ‘for-real’ football team with an outstanding running back. They realized there was very little room for error.
“Every play was a key play. No one took a play off and we’ve got to do that again this week. This week, they’ve got two Division I running backs.”
Ironically, Zmijanac said the Quips’ high-scoring offensive numbers wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of Aliquippa’s shutdown defense.
“The key for us is that defensively we’ve played extremely well, and that’s given the offense an opportunity to score,” the Quips coach said. “We’re not fancy offensively and we’re not fancy on defense.”
The Quips are quick and physical, a tough combination for any team to beat.
Aliquippa has six shutouts and only two teams have reached double-digit scoring, with Karns City’s 15 points the season-high allowed by the Quips.
Richland’s diverse offense must fare better than the Gremlins did last week for the Rams to have a chance.
“The main reason we’ve had offensive success is our opponents can’t key on any one individual or any one part of the field,” Bailey said. “We try to spread the field out. Aliquippa is different than most teams we’ve played. They’re not hiding any of their players.
“All 11 guys are very good players. Usually you can identify one player you want to attack. We haven’t been able to do that this week because they’re all very good.”
Richland will count on junior quarterback Matt Shaffer (1,981 passing yards), receivers Flick (825 receiving yards) and Shertzer (812 receiving yards), and feature back junior Tanner Solarczyk (1,946 rushing yards, 28 touchdowns).
“Richland does some things some teams around here haven’t been able to do,” Zmijanac said. “We haven’t seen anything quite like it. Quite frankly, they’re a young football team but a very good one. Brandon has done a fine job and they’ve got good, experienced linemen. That’s how you build a program, whether it’s freshmen or seniors. What they’ve done the last couple years is paying dividends now.”