Thanksgiving Day practice now annual tradition for WPIAL 4A finalists Central Valley, Aliquippa

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Thursday, November 24, 2022 | 9:00 AM


How many folks are coming to Thanksgiving dinner? Central Valley’s Bret FitzSimmons expected to eat turkey with around 70 friends.

It’s become an annual after-practice tradition for him and his football teammates, who planned to eat together around noon Thursday for the fourth year in a row. That’s one of their favorite perks for reaching the WPIAL championship game.

“That’s the first thing coach Mark (Lyons) said when we beat TJ (in the semifinals),” said FitzSimmons, a senior. “In the huddle, he was like, ‘Well, we’re eating on Thanksgiving again.’”

Some of the parents start deep frying turkeys the night before. They cook 12 or 13 birds, Lyons said.

“It really is great,” FitzSimmons said. “We’ll get to the school at 9:30. We’ll do our normal Thursday routine. We’ll watch film. We’ll get on the field and get a little walk-through going. Then we’ll go up to the school. Some of the parents volunteer and cook all of this food for us.

“It’s a great tradition.”

Most WPIAL teams don’t reach the finals often enough to have championship traditions, but both teams in the Class 4A final certainly have. No. 2 seed Central Valley (11-1) will face No. 1 Aliquippa (11-0) at 8 p.m. Friday at Acrisure Stadium.

The Quips are in the finals for the 15th consecutive year. Both teams are reigning WPIAL and state champions. Aliquippa won Class 4A last season while Central Valley won 3A.

The two Beaver County high schools are about six miles apart and their football teams have a rivalry that’s become one of the hottest in the WPIAL. Aliquippa won 35-24 when the Parkway Conference foes met Oct. 28 in their regular-season finales.

This rematch carries much more weight.

“We’re happy we get to face Quip again,” said FitzSimmons, a 1,700-yard rusher. “It feels good to be back in the championship. There’s nowhere else we’d rather be.”

Aliquippa has reached the WPIAL finals every year since 2008, but coach Mike Warfield uses a baseball analogy to sum up their recent success rate, saying the team needs to better its batting average. The Quips won six WPIAL titles and lost eight times in that 14-year stretch.

That includes an overtime loss to Central Valley, 13-12, in the 2019 WPIAL Class 3A championship.

“It comes down to a couple of plays,” said Warfield, who is 2-2 in WPIAL finals in his first four seasons. “I think the kids understand that every play is important, every play matters when we’re playing good competition. They’re good. We’re good. The margin for error shrinks.”

Central Valley is 5-2 all-time in WPIAL championships. The Warriors won Class 3A the past three years before updated enrollment numbers moved them to 4A.

There were four lead changes when the teams met four weeks ago, but Aliquippa’s defense held Central Valley scoreless after halftime. Tiqwai Hayes and Donovan Walker had two touchdowns each for Aliquippa. FitzSimmons scored twice for Central Valley.

Aliquippa led 6-0 and 14-7 after touchdowns by Hayes (3-yard run) and Walker (92-yard catch) in the first half.

Central Valley leaned on its running game, scored 24 points in the second quarter and took a 24-14 lead into half. FitzSimmons had a 2-yard touchdown run and a 10-yard TD catch. But in hindsight, Lyons said Central Valley’s offense became “too condensed” and “fell in love” with one formation.

The Warriors were outscored 21-0 in the second half on touchdowns by Aliquippa’s John Tracy (2-yard run), Walker (25-yard pass) and Hayes (20-yard run). Hayes finished with 178 yards on 24 carries. Walker had six catches for 146 yards.

“We gave up too many splash plays,” Lyons said.

The teams have played seven times since Central Valley became a school in 2010. The Warriors had won four in a row in the series before their Week 9 loss.

The WPIAL Class 4A playoff field was strong this season, but the fact the Quips and Warriors will rematch here in the finals was anticipated by many.

“Absolutely,” Lyons said. “When you have as many guys who’ve played in big games as they have and as we have, you expect to be there at the end.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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