HERSHEY — Avante McKenzie knows how it feels to watch others celebrate.
His freshman year, Aliquippa lost badly here in Hershey and it stuck with his senior class ever since. The next two years they watched from a distance as a conference rival celebrated at Hersheypark Stadium instead of them.
And then came last week.
McKenzie was away from the team for disciplinary reasons and forced to watch from the stands as his teammates celebrated a state semifinal win without their leading rusher.
“It was kind of tough,” said McKenzie, but the teammate nicknamed “Chief” led the championship celebration Saturday afternoon, and the only tears shed were tears of joy.
McKenzie rushed for 198 yards and four touchdowns, and Aliquippa played shutout defense to defeat Middletown, 35-0, in the PIAA Class 3A final, earning the Quips their first state title since Darrelle Revis was a senior in 2003.
“It’s very emotional,” McKenzie said. “I posted on Snapchat it’s going to be an emotional game. I had to. I knew it was going to be emotional.”
The PIAA title was the third overall for Aliquippa (14-1), which also won in 1991. The Quips, making their first trip to the finals under first-year coach Mike Warfield, were state runners-up in 2012 and 2015.
“We’ve wanted this since we were four years old,” said senior MJ Devonshire, who made seven catches for 73 yards. “This is what we talked about when we started playing football. We wanted to be state champions four years in a row, and each year we came up short. We knew this year we couldn’t come up short.”
District 3 champion Middletown (14-2) suffered its third consecutive loss in the state championship despite 146 rushing yards on 22 carries by junior Jose Lopez. The Blue Raiders lost 41-24 to Quaker Valley last season, and 30-13 to Beaver Falls in 2016. Both Beaver Falls and Quaker Valley upset Aliquippa in the WPIAL finals those years.
“This is a big win for us,” McKenzie said. “This is a big goal we’ve been chasing all our lives.”
McKenzie hadn’t played since the WPIAL championship Nov. 17. Warfield declined to discuss McKenzie’s discipline, except to call it a coach/school decision. But McKenzie’s teammates knew the time away from the team was difficult.
“Last week he called me and said, ‘Bring my cleats home,’” Devonshire said. “He couldn’t come to practice, so he was doing drills in his backyard with a trash can and lids. I knew how much he wanted it when he came out here.”
McKenzie wasn’t in the starting lineup Saturday but scored the Quips’ first four touchdowns on 22 carries. His 5-yarder in the first quarter gave Aliquippa a 7-0 halftime lead, and he broke the game open with second-half touchdowns on runs of 35, 1 and 80 yards.
“I knew he’d be hungry and wanting to play,” Warfield said. “Just watching him in practice the last couple of days, I knew he was ready to go.”
The two halves were much different for Aliquippa’s offense, slowed by three first-half turnovers. The Quips had 63 rushing yards in the first half and 177 in the second.
Aliquippa’s lead reached 35-0 on an 8-yard touchdown catch by Gevod Tyson with 7:43 left in the fourth, enacting the mercy rule for the final minutes.
“We were doing things that they’d seen before,” Warfield said, “so we switched it up a little bit (after halftime).”
Quips quarterback Eli Kosanovich completed 17 of 30 attempts for 170 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
What didn’t change was Aliquippa’s defense. The Quips held Middletown to four punts, a missed field goal and a failed fourth-down conversion in the first half.
The best defensive stand came midway through the second when Middletown took possession at Aliquippa’s 16-yard line. On fourth-and-four at the 10, Tyson’s coverage in the end zone forced Middletown’s Scott Ash to throw incomplete. Tyson led Aliquippa with eight tackles. Isaiah Towler and Zuriah Fisher each made seven.
Aliquippa scored just twice and surrendered seven touchdowns in 2015 in a 49-14 loss to Southern Columbia. This time, the Quips celebrated their all-around effort.
“We told ourselves,” McKenzie said, “that when we come back here, we’re going to get it for us.”
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.