Wilmington’s Ethan Susen carries the ball against Chestnut Ridge during last Friday’s District 10 Class 2A PIAA quarterfinal game in New Wilmington. Susen and the Hounds battle Beaver Falls at 7 p.m. tonight in the state semifinals at Geneva College.

In 1969 Joe Namath put Beaver Falls on the map by orchestrating the New York Jets’ 16-7 Super Bowl III upset of the Baltimore Colts. But in his autobiography “All the Way,” Namath acknowledged that the 1960 Beaver Falls High football team he quarterbacked to a 9-0 season “is still talked about to this day.”

While Namath will not be at Geneva College’s Reeves Stadium tonight, his alma mater – which recently won the program’s 5th WPIAL championship – will as the Tigers (10-0) tangle with Wilmington (9-0) in a PIAA Class 2A Final Four contest at 7 p.m.

According to archives at The Herald, this will mark the Wilmington program’s 5th consecutive season in the statewide semifinals, matching Farrell (2015-19) and Clairton (2008-12) in recent western Pennsylvania annals.

Beaver Falls won WPIAL crowns in 1928, 1960, 1984 and 2016 (including the PIAA championship, 30-13 over Middletown), in addition to last week’s 43-30 rout of Sto-Rox.

But according to a published report, Beaver Falls’ program languished soon after that 2016 championship, concluding Ryan Matsook’s 11-year tenure as Tigers’ taskmaster (101-26). Former Matsook assistant Nick Nardone succeeded him. Though Beaver Falls finished 1-8 during Nardone’s initial season the Tigers have been trending upward since. 

“Nick Nardone has done a terrific job with that program. When he inherited that team he had to build the team back up, (but) I think that Beaver Falls is a proud program with a lot of history, so they’re certainly no stranger to moments like this. I think they will draw on the program’s success to be prepared and ready,” summarized Wilmington Head Coach Brandon Phillian.

Last week Beaver Falls forged a 36-0 lead. Syracuse University recruit Josh Hough had 101 yards rushing and tallied 2 TDs; Trey Singleton secured a 7-carry, 129-yard performance, and Shileak Livingston lent a 2-yard TD run.

According to The Beaver County Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hough has rushed for 1,920 yards and 28 TDs (WPIAL-leading 188 points) this season and 4,250 yards and 53 TDs for his career. Livingston also surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau and has contributed 18 TDs and 130 points this season. Singleton (12-405, 33.8 per-catch) and Quadir Thomas (10-311, 31.1), according to The Post-Gazette, stretch the field when the Falls passes via Jaren Brickner (38 of 96, 39.5 percent, 951 yards, 5 TDs, 5 interceptions).

Beaver Falls’ physicality was formidable in stunning Sto-Rox. Nardone told The (Pittsburgh) Tribune-Chronicle, “ ... We’re going to run the ball at you until you show you can stop it. A lot of people think our team is just Shileak and Josh – and those are tremendous backs who can do great things. But if we need Quadir Thomas to run a deep pattern or Singleton and Mekhi Clark to run some Jet sweeps, we have athletes all over the field.” 

The Tigers’ defense mauled Sto-Rox, logging a quartet of quarterback sacks.

In addition to Sto-Rox, Beaver Falls beat Riverside (47-14), Laurel (29-14), Ellwood City-Lincoln (54-26), New Brighton (44-15), Mohawk (49-14), Freedom (50-14), Neshannock (46-27), Western Beaver (42-14), and Apollo-Ridge (50-27).

“Beaver Falls is a terrific football team,” Phillian praised. “They’re very well coached, they’re very physical on both the offensive and defensive lines, they’ve got great backs on the offensive side of the football, great linebackers and great secondary people on the defensive side of the football. They’ve got a great combination. They’re a total team. They’re very physical, very talented along the line, and they’ve got the athletes and the skill players behind the line.”

Wilmington won a trio of tilts against reigning 2-time Class 1A commonwealth kingpin Farrell. Drawing an analogy, Phillian said, “Beaver Falls has a lot of team speed. They’ve got speed at all five of the skill-positions, they’ve got speed at the quarterback position. So that’s something we’ll have to account for in our game plans on both sides of the football.

“That being said ... Farrell also had a ton of team speed, some great athletes on both sides of that football team. So I think being battle-tested, having won against Farrell three times this season, I do believe that will serve us well going into the state semifinals.”

Wilmington is coming off one of its best performances. Led by Ethan Susen and Darren Miller the Greyhounds’ ground game generated more than 600 yards en route to a 56-29 rout of 5-time District 5 champion Chestnut Ridge.

Based on his 28-carry, 316-yard, 6-TD effort Susen surpassed the career 3,000-yard plateau (3,015) – just the 6th player in program history. Miller motored for another 270 against Chestnut Ridge and unofficially stands at 2,607 for his career. Wilmington went for 680 total yards, but the Greyhounds were penalized 12 times for 122 lost yards.

“ ...  I do believe we are peaking at the right time,” Phillian reflected. “I believe part of that mantra of ‘Humble and Hungry’ is always being hungry, always trying to improve each and every day – whether it’s on the practice field or on the game field. And I am happy to report that I think that our football team has continued to improve each and every day, each and every week this season. I think we are still continuing to ascend. We are playing better football each and every week than the week before.

“And the fact that we are peaking at the right time I think will serve us very, very well (tonight). Hopefully we can continue that ascension and continue that peaking, as opposed to plateau-ing. I’m confident the boys are going to ... continue trending in the upward direction,” Phillian continued, cautioning,  

“I think limiting mistakes is critical. Certainly, we want to win the turnover margin, and I think that was a big key in our win against Chestnut Ridge. The other piece is limiting the penalties. That’s something we certainly need to clean up after what transpired (last) Friday night, so we were kind’ve one-out-of-two there. But, certainly, winning the turnover margin and limiting penalties will be huge.”

During its 2nd-half surge against Chestnut Ridge Wilmington went to the Wildcat formation, which also was employed by Beaver Falls. Singleton told The Tribune-Review, “ ... I’ll run out of the Wildcat, or any formation.”

Wilmington went to back-to-back PIAA championship games (2017-18), then last season fell just a step shy of returning to Hershey. Its 16-member senior class has won 4 consecutive District 10 championships and advanced to 4 straight state semifinals.

“It’s just awesome!” Miller admitted, “I’’m just really blessed and really grateful to have had a career here like we’ve had. Blessed to have super guys to get here and get this far with, so I think it’s just awesome and I’m grateful for that. ... I didn’t think we were going to have a year at the beginning of all this (coronavirus), so I’m really glad we’ve been able to make it this far. I’m really enjoying it!”

Echoed 2-way lineman Morgan Whiting, “Not very many teams have that, not very many kids in the state have had that happen to them. It’s not something a lot of kids get to experience, so we’ve just gotta cherish it and realize it’s something really, really special, and I just really appreciate it.”

“I think the fact that our club has been so fortunate to have experience in the state playoffs, I do think that through that experience comes a quiet calmness going into a game like this,” Phillian assessed. “There comes a humility, and I think that will serve our team and our players well as they enter this game (to)night.

“I think every season is unique,” Phillian observed. “However – because so many of this year’s seniors played key roles as juniors last season – I think for so many of the seniors this year it is definitely a huge motivator, the fact that we were so close a year ago to getting back to Hershey, coming up just short, I think that will be very, very motivating for a lot of guys on our football team.”

If Wilmington is to beat Beaver Falls, for Phillian, it will be because of the basics.

“At the end of the day, I think the team that blocks better up front and the team that tackles better will ultimately be the team that comes out victorious and earns that berth in the state championship game,” the Hounds’ headmaster observed.

Phillian reflected on the COVID-19 pandemic and how it nearly jeopardized the 2020 season.

“It’s a true blessing to have this opportunity, when just a few, short months ago we didn’t even know if there would be a football season. So the fact that we’ve gotten to play nine games and we have an opportunity to compete in a western final, I think we’re really looking at that as a true blessing, Phillian said, continuing, 

“And one of the things that we talk about each and every, single week before a playoff game is, the only thing that is guaranteed to these seniors on Mondays before practice is four more practices and one more game. Part of the motivation to try and win (tonight) is – not just to win the football game, but to buy another week together. You know, this is a gritty group of seniors. They love playing high school football. And part of the motivation is that winning (tonight) buys you four or five more practices together – one of ‘em on Thanksgiving morning, which is obviously so special – and one more game together.

“So we’re very grateful, very humble, very blessed to have this opportunity in front of us. It’s something that we want to make the most of, and we certainly want to have a great performance (tonight), if for no other reason than to buy ourselves one more week of brotherhood and camaraderie together,” Phillian concluded.

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