His team defeated a very solid District 10 champion Hickory High to advance to the state semifinals.
The opponent? WPIAL perennial power Aliquippa.
The District 6 champions and the Quips each possessed 14-0 records entering a much-anticipated match up. A berth in the PIAA Class AA championship was at stake.
Brandon Bailey knows the story line all too well.
It will unfold this weekend, just as it did when he was a senior first-team, all-state quarterback 21 years ago.
The Richland coach will lead his undefeated Rams against unbeaten Aliquippa at 7 on Friday night at North Allegheny High School.
“We talked to our kids about the tradition,” Bailey said.
This state semifinal has many similarities to the last time Bailey had a major role in a state semifinal against Aliquippa.
Back then, Bailey was a Division I prospect who passed for 5,667 yards and was a key cog on the Forest Hills offense coached by his father, Don Bailey. The younger Bailey went to West Virginia University before transferring and finishing his career at Connecticut.
The Rangers met an Aliquippa squad led by crafty running back Chico Williams, who gained more than 2,000 yards in ’91, and two-way standout Ty Law, who went on to star at Michigan before a 15-year NFL career that included three Super Bowl wins as a cornerback with the New England Patriots.
Much like this year’s Rams, the 1991 Rangers were decided underdogs.
Not many outside of the area gave Forest Hills a chance to contend with the Quips and Aliquippa’s tradition.
Richland assistant coach Tom Smith stressed the same message to the Rams’ players in the postgame huddle near midfield at Slippery Rock University on Saturday. “No one outside of this group will give you a chance next week,” Smith said, using that fact as a motivational tool.
Brandon Bailey is counting on his team to show the doubters a thing or two.
He had first-hand experience doing just that even though Forest Hills came up a bit short in a 12-6 loss to Aliquippa in 1991. The Rangers finished with advantages in first downs and total yardage but couldn’t outpoint the Quips.
“Our players are well aware of that game,” Bailey said. “They went on YouTube, and someone had the 1991 game between Forest Hills and Aliquippa uploaded on there. That 1991 game was eerily similar. Forest Hills was 14-0 and Aliquippa was 14-0.”
Richland and Aliquippa each are perfect through 14 games this season.
“I’m hoping our defense can step up and play like that 1991 Forest Hills defense,” Bailey said. The Rangers held the Quips to seven first downs, 81 net rushing yards and 28 passing yards.
“I hope we get better play out of the quarterback position,” joked Bailey, who downplayed his solid performance in that game 21 years ago.
The Quips defense intercepted Bailey three times, including a game-clincher in the closing seconds. Bailey, however, was outstanding on the Rangers’ scoring drive, hitting four of five passes for 74 yards during a march capped by fullback Mike Leventry’s 1-yard run.
“Aliquippa was an exceptional team that season as they are now,” Bailey said. “Back in ’91, both of their corners were future NFL players. They took away a lot of stuff we liked to do like any good defense does.”
The present day Rams players see Friday’s matchup as another challenge during a milestone season.
“Our goal was to win districts, and after we won districts, our goal was to win states,” said junior running back Tanner Solarczyk, who has 1,946 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. “It’s like a once in a life opportunity to play Aliquippa.”
The Quips feature two junior 1,000-yard rushers in Dravon Henry (1,567 yards, 24 rushing touchdowns) and Terry Swanson (1,299 yards, 20 touchdowns). Jaleel Fields, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound two-way lineman and junior linebacker Donovan Cobb are also considered Division I prospects as underclassmen.
“They’re going to be good for the next couple of years,” veteran Karns City coach Ed Conto said after Aliquippa routed the Gremlins 51-15 in the quarterfinals. “It’s hard to believe there’s a team any better than that, at least in AA.”
“Aliquippa is fast,” Richland two-way senior lineman Travis Niel said. “We’ve got to keep our heads straight, keep our focus and conditioning.”
There is also the history of a program that has produced first-round NFL draft picks Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, Law, Darrelle Revis and Jonathan Baldwin.
Of course, there’s also a record 15 WPIAL titles and two state championships, including one by that 1991 squad which beat Forest Hills on a Saturday afternoon at Seneca Valley High.
“We previewed the Rick Reilly story on Aliquippa that was done last year to let our players know what they’re up against but also to let our kids know they’re regular kids too,” Bailey said of a ESPN HS football video written and narrated by Reilly.
“I don’t think you can get caught up in the intimidation thing,” Bailey added. “What I noticed as a player 21 years ago was the speed of the game. It’s a different level. We have to prepare our players for that speed they’re going to see on Friday night. They have several Division I players and they’re powerful on the offensive and defensive line.
“Everything we hear out of Aliquippa is this may be their best team ever. That’s saying something considering they have state championships and have produced the Jonathan Baldwins, Ty Laws, Sean Gilberts, Darrelle Revises and Mike Ditkas.”