Counting down the top stories in WPIAL sports in 2023: Aliquippa finally achieves perfection

Friday, December 29, 2023 | 11:01 AM

The 2023 year in WPIAL sports saw a lot of excitement across three seasons.

There was domination on the hardwood and in the pool during the winter sports season and sensational action on the diamonds, hardcourts and tracks in the spring, concluding with greatness on the gridiron, the pitch and around the district hills and valleys.

Some records were broken while others were established. We honored some of the best coaches and said goodbye to some legends.

Join us all week as we look back at the moments that stood out in a thrilling high school sports ride in 2023.

In our year-end tradition, Trib HSSN winds down the year with a daily countdown and a look back at the top 23 WPIAL stories from 2023.

Today, we look at No. 9 through No. 5.

No. 9 – Legends exit quietly

Within a three month span this spring, three WPIAL basketball legends quietly stepped away from the game.

After only one year as head coach of the Bishop Canevin boys basketball team, Tim McConnell resigned.

The former boys and girls basketball coach at Chartiers Valley ended up with 662 victories in 26 years of coaching.

Apollo-Ridge girls basketball coach Ray Bartha ended his second stint as Vikings coach by retiring with 579 victories.

It was not a sweet ending after 37 years as Mars girls basketball coach for Dana Petruska, who resigned after a career in which she won 517 games.

No. 8 – Happy in Happy Valley

One of the most successful coaches in WPIAL football history said so long to his high school days and hello to the college life.

Just six days into 2023 and a little over a year after guiding Mt. Lebanon to WPIAL and PIAA championships, Palko stepped down for personal reasons, including his health and to deal with the recent passing of his mother.

Palko coached for 27 seasons — 24 at West Allegheny and 3 at Mt. Lebanon.

Six months later, Palko took a job with the Penn State football program.

Palko’s official title at Penn State is director of high school relations for football.

No. 7 – Perfect Panthers

Dan Oliastro has seen a lot of things in his 55 years as head coach of the Riverside baseball team, but he never saw what he witnessed this past spring.

In fact, no WPIAL school has accomplished what the perfect Panthers did.

Riverside became the first district school to win a PIAA championship with an undefeated record. The Panthers swept district and state gold with a 25-0 record.

Winning the WPIAL crown, the Panthers’ sixth, did not come easy as Riverside had to rally to defeat Neshannock, 6-1.

History was made a few weeks later when Riverside won its fifth PIAA baseball championship. The state crowns in 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2013 are the most PIAA baseball titles for a WPIAL school.

No. 6 – Leaping Leopards

Perhaps 2023 was the year of the Leopards.

A pair of Leopards swept District 7 and PIAA gold in 2023 with Lincoln Park taking gold in boys basketball and Belle Vernon claiming two football titles for the second year in a row.

The 2023 Lincoln Park sweep of district and state gold marks the third time the Leopards have won both titles in the same year. They also won WPIAL and PIAA championships in 2014 and 2019.

Lincoln Park finished 31-1. The Leopards won their first 12 games, lost to eventual 6A champion Central Catholic, then won their final 19 games.

Often times, the Leopards had to either play up against bigger schools or go out of district to find stiff competition.

Thanks in part to the dynamic duo of junior Brandin Cummings and sophomore Maleek Thomas, Lincoln Park outscored their opponents by an average of 76-58.

The Leopards captured their sixth WPIAL title in an 11-year span with a 10-point victory over North Catholic.

A few weeks later, Lincoln Park captured its third PIAA state championship with a victory over Neumann-Goretti, 62-58.

On the gridiron, it had been 27 years between WPIAL football championships for Belle Vernon when they won the 2022 3A championship. They only had to wait 12 more months before winning their next crown.

The 2023 WPIAL Class 3A championship game was a rematch of the 2022 finals with the same result, Belle Vernon beating Avonworth.

The Leopards’ 26-0 whitewash of the Antelopes marked the third shutout in the last seven Class 3A title games.

Two weeks later, Belle Vernon sat alone in the state atop Class 3A after beating Northwestern Lehigh to capture a second straight PIAA championship.

Belle Vernon became the seventh WPIAL school to win back-to-back football state titles, following Farrell in 1995-1996, Rochester in 2000-2001, Thomas Jefferson twice in 2007-2008 and again in 2019-2020, Clairton in 2009-2012, South Fayette in 2013-2014 and Central Valley in 2020-2021.

No. 5 – Quips are perfect

The Aliquippa football program has enjoyed record amounts of success through the decades.

The Quips have a current streak of reaching the WPIAL championship game 16 years in a row and growing. They have won more WPIAL football titles than any other district school, capturing their 20th crown in November.

They then won their fifth PIAA state championship in December.

For all the golden moments, Aliquippa has enjoyed over the years, it never won both a WPIAL and PIAA title with a perfect record … until this season.

After winning every game but one in 2022, a loss in the PIAA title game, the Quips finished the deal on a perfect 14-0 season in 2023.

The third district championship in a row came in a victory over McKeesport.

Then the exclamation point came in the state finals when Aliquippa exploded for 60 points in a 46-point victory over Dallas.

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