For Middletown, Manheim Central and Harrisburg, it all comes down to one game.
The last three Central Pennsylvania high school football teams left standing will be gunning for state gold this weekend in their respective classes.
Manheim Central will be in action tonight in the Class 5A final, while Middletown and Harrisburg will wait until Saturday for their shots at the big prize.
Here’s a preview of all three games.
PIAA Class 3A Championship
Middletown (14-1) vs. Aliquippa (14-1)
Saturday, noon in Hersheypark Stadium (TV: PCN)
ABOUT MIDDLETOWN: This is the Blue Raiders’ third straight visit to the state championship game. They are still seeking their first state title. Last year, Middletown fell 41-24 to Quaker Valley in the state final and finished the season with a 14-1 record. In 2016, the Raiders dropped a 30-13 decision to Beaver Falls, again suffering their lone defeat in their final game to finish 14-1.
This year, Middletown won its third straight District 3 title in the postseason after capturing the Mid-Penn Capital Division title in the regular season. The Raiders’ only loss was a 40-14 setback to Bishop McDevitt in Week 3, so they’re riding a 12-game winning streak into the state final. Middletown defeated Scranton Prep 35-21 in the state semifinals last week; it was the third straight year that the Raiders’ ended Scranton Prep’s season in the state playoffs.
Running back Jose Lopez rushed for 221 yards and scored twice on 22 carries to lead the way for Middletown, while his backfield mate, Richie Sykes, added 60 yards and a score on the ground and hauled in a 23-yard TD pass from quarterback Scott Ash.
Lopez has rushed for 2,221 yards and 28 touchdowns on 263 carries this season, while Sykes has 1,224 yards and 15 TDs on 132 attempts. Sykes is also Middletown’s leading receiver, with 20 catches for 265 yards and four scores.
Ash has completed 87 of 160 passes for 1,514 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s been intercepted six times.
ABOUT ALIQUIPPA: One of Pennsylvania’s most successful programs, Aliquippa has an overall record of 717-316-42, which ranks seventh in state annals (Mount Carmel, with a record of 856-326-59, ranks first). Aliquippa has won two PIAA championships, the last coming in 2003. The Quips have produced numerous NFL stars over the years, a distinguished list that includes the likes of Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, Ty Law, and Darrelle Revis. This has been the Aliquippa’s most successful season since 2012, when the Quips went 15-1 and reached the state championship before falling 17-14 to Wyomissing.
This year, the Quips captured its 17th WPIAL championship with a 42-19 rout of Derry in the title game. Aliquippa knocked off Sharon 41-7 in last week’s state semifinal. It was the fifth straight win for the Quips, whose only loss was a 14-8 upset against Central Valley on Oct. 26.
Aliquippa’s offense averages 378 yards per game. The Quips have a 3,000-yard passer in QB Eli Kosanovich (147-230-4 for 3,019 yards and 38 TDs), a 1,600-yard receiver in William Gipson (58-1,631, 19 TDs) and a 1,000-yard rusher in Avante McKenzie (177-1,444, 31 TDs). Kosanovich set a school record for single-season passing yardage this year, while Gipson recently gave his verbal commitment to Pitt.
McKenzie did not play in the Quips’ semifinal blowout of Sharon after being suspended from school. His status for the state title game is questionable, according to reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Senior Xavier Harvey, who had logged just 67 yards on 13 carries before being called to duty as McKenzie’s replacement in the starting lineup, rushed for 141 yards on 14 carries. He got a boost from converted receiver MJ Devonshire, who joined Harvey in the backfield and rushed for 119 yards on 12 carries.
Devonshire, one of the WPIAL’s top all-around players, is second on the team with 24 total touchdowns. He is reportedly being courted by Pitt, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Iowa, Ohio State, and Syracuse, who are all looking at him as a defensive back.
PIAA Class 5A Championship
Manheim Central (14-0) vs. Penn Hills (15-0)
Friday, 7 p.m. in Hersheypark Stadium (TV: PCN)
ABOUT MANHEIM CENTRAL: The Barons are back in the PIAA finals for the fourth time in program history after defeating Upper Dublin 34-12 in last Friday’s semifinals. Manheim Central won a state championship in 2003 after years of falling just short in the semifinal round, defeating Pine-Richland 39-38 in overtime in a classic confrontation that will forever be known as “The Snow Game,” for the blizzard-like conditions it was played in. The Barons returned to the state final a year later, but were defeated by Thomas Jefferson. They also fell to Selinsgrove in the 2009 championship game.
This year, Central brings in an unblemished record after capturing its second straight District 3 Class 5A title. The Barons average 393 yards and 43 points per game on offense, while their defense is giving up 215 yards and 10.3 points per game.
Central’s balanced attack is powered by its two main catalysts: quarterback Evan Simon and running back Tyler Flick. Simon has completed 119 of 220 passes for 2,501 yards and 28 touchdowns, and is second on the team in rushing with 613 yards and 12 scores on 109 carries. Flick, who missed last year’s playoffs with an arm injury, has racked up 1,735 yards and 31 touchdowns on 260 attempts.
Colby Wagner (24-761, 11 TDs), Will Rivers (30-638, six TDs) and Isaac Perron (25-401, two TDs) are the Barons’ top receivers.
ABOUT PENN HILLS: The Indians held off two-time defending state champ Archbishop Wood 20-13 in last week’s state semifinals to book their trip to the title game. Penn Hills is seeking its second state crown; the last came back in 1995. The Indians captured the WPIAL title with a 28-18 victory over West Allegheny on Nov. 23.
Known for their big-play offense, it was the Indian defense that made the difference against Archbishop Wood, a perennial state powerhouse that was looking for its fourth state title in five years. The Vikings entered the game with a fearsome rushing attack, but Penn Hills held them to 108 yards on 36 attempts. The Indians also forced three Wood turnovers.
From a statistical standpoint, Penn Hills and Manheim Central have very similar offenses. The Indians average 365 yards and 37.6 points per game, split almost evenly between the ground game and the air attack. Quarterback Hollis Mathis has completed 147 of 241 passes for 2,570 yards and 37 touchdowns, and is second on the team in rushing with 453 yards and six scores on 84 attempts. Awesomely named running back Tank Smith has racked up 1,506 yards and 21 touchdowns on 182 attempts, while the trio of Daequan Hardy (32-685, 17 TDs), Dante Cephas (31-739, 14 TDs), and Anthony Grimes (31-409, five TDs) haul in the bulk of Mathis’ passes.
Penn Hills’ defense allows just 164 yards and 10.6 points per game.
PIAA Class 6A Championship
Harrisburg (13-1) vs. St. Joseph’s Prep (12-0)
Saturday, 6 p.m. in Hersheypark Stadium (TV: PCN)
ABOUT HARRISBURG: The Cougars avenged their only loss of the season by upsetting Coatesville 27-24 in last week’s state semifinals. It was the 13th straight win for Harrisburg, which lost 37-6 to the Red Raiders in their season opener. The Cougars are making their second trip to the state title game in three seasons. They fell 37-10 to Archbishop Wood in the 2016 state final.
Jahmir Plant rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries against Coatesville, while Kane Everson threw for 102 yards and a TD on 7-for-13 passing and added 71 yards on the ground. The Cougar defense held the Raiders to a season-low 24 points, though Coatesville did manage 318 total yards. Harrisburg exploded for three touchdowns in the second quarter to build a 21-10 lead at halftime and held off the Raiders from there, though Coatesville did cut the margin down to a one-possession game with a pair of second-half touchdowns.
Everson has passed for 2,258 yards and 27 touchdowns this season, while Plant’s big game against Coatesville raised his yardage total to 1,034 yards and boosted his TD total to 12 this season.
Harrisburg is gunning for the first state title in program history.
ABOUT ST. JOSEPH’S PREP: The Hawks earned a shot at their fourth state title since 2013 by pummeling Pine-Richland 37-0 in last week’s semifinals. The win avenged a 41-21 loss to the Rams in last year’s state championship game. St. Joseph’s got a huge performance from sophomore quarterback Kyle McCord, who completed 21 of 30 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns. McCord spread the ball around to seven different receivers; four of his passes went to wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. — whose father was Peyton Manning’s favorite target with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.
McCord, a 6-3, 195-pound sophomore, already has received scholarship offers from Penn State, West Virginia, Michigan, Arizona, and a handful of other programs. He’s thrown for 2,600 yards and 33 touchdowns this season, completing 175 of 275 pass attempts.
Harrison is second on the team in receiving, with 42 catches for 648 yards and eight scores. Senior Johnny Freeman leads the Hawks, with 47 catches for 787 yards and 10 scores. Junior Kolbe Burrell is Prep’s leading rusher, with 774 yards and 11 scores on 140 attempts. Marques Mason is a two-way threat for the Hawks, with 35 catches for 504 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver and 463 yards and nine scores as a rusher.
Prep’s offense averages 41 points and 345 yards per game. The Hawks have scored at least 40 points in seven of their last 10 games.