2021 WPIAL Class 4A football breakdown: Contenders line up to knock TJ from throne

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Tuesday, August 24, 2021 | 6:01 AM


Thomas Jefferson reigned again in Class 4A last season, winning its 10th WPIAL championship followed by its fifth PIAA title.

It seems like every year the same question is asked: Can the Jaguars do it again?

Veteran coach Bill Cherpak hopes so. But as with other seasons, he sounds the bell of cautious optimism that his team, which lost several key pieces to graduation, will be ready for the new battles in and out of conference play.

He knows teams such as fellow 2020 Big Eight Conference tri-champs Belle Vernon and McKeesport; last year’s other conference champions, Aliquippa and Plum; as well as Class 4A playoff qualifiers Chartiers Valley, Hampton and Mars, among others, are hoping to knock them off.

“I really don’t say much to the guys. They know what they have to do to be ready to defend the titles. Not every year do we have the same talent level, but that doesn’t change what we do,” said Cherpak, whose team survived an instant classic against Aliquippa — 35-28 in overtime — to again hoist the WPIAL championship trophy.

“The talent everywhere in 4A is amazing. Just in our conference, Belle Vernon is loaded. We know the talent McKeesport has. West Mifflin always has great athletes. Trinity has a really strong line coming back, and they can’t be overlooked. Up and down the list, it’s going to be a great challenge.”

Thomas Jefferson doesn’t have it easy before it enters conference play as it will visit Class 5A power Gateway on Sept. 3 before hosting former Class 4A rival South Fayette.

McKeesport snapped Thomas Jefferson’s 21-game conference winning streak with a 20-14 victory in last year’s season finale, which helped forge a three-way tie for the Big Eight title.

The Tigers hoped to carry that momentum for a playoff run, but their season came to a sudden halt with a 12-9 loss at Plum in the quarterfinals.

With quarterback Caleb Reist and running back Kayne Thompson leading the charge, coach Matt Miller said he likes where his team stands heading into its second year in Class 4A.

“I am really excited about the team we have coming in with a lot of experience back,” Miller said. “You saw a lot of teams really improve as last season went on and were peaking at the end of the season.

“Last year was really tough, and a number of teams started slow and took some time to hit their stride. It should be a pretty fun year in each conference.”

Belle Vernon, which fell to Aliquippa in the playoff semifinals last year, has senior do-it-all performer Devin Whitlock and sophomore wide receiver, running back and defensive back Quinton Martin leading the way. The Leopards hope to again be in the mix.

“I think in each conference, there are several teams who can challenge for a conference title,” coach Matt Humbert said. “There are so many great coaches and great athletes. While each team has a lot of work still to do, I am sure everyone is excited to get into the games and see how everything is going to play out.”

Aliquippa’s Mike Warfield admits he still is a little miffed over his team again having to play up in Class 4A based on the PIAA’s competitive balance rule. But like last year, when his team rolled through the Parkway Conference and into the battle with Thomas Jefferson for the title, he said he knows his players will prepare and compete their hardest as goals for WPIAL gold remain.

“Every year is different with new players, but we just have to focus on strengthening our weaknesses,” Warfield said. “The guys have been working hard and are ready to do the best they can. We haven’t been worried too much yet on who we have to play. That will come in time. We just have to make sure we are doing as much as we can every day to better ourselves.”

Despite losing several key players to graduation, Plum hopes to defend its Greater Allegheny Conference crown and build on several all-time program records established last year.

“The guys proved last year that we belonged in the conversation with the best in 4A, beating McKeesport and giving TJ everything they wanted (in the semifinals),” coach Matt Morgan said.

“That game against TJ could’ve gone either way. We had a big senior class, but we also had several underclassmen who were big contributors. We’re going to be a team that everyone is going to want to knock off, but I also see us as a team that can compete with anyone in 4A and make another push.”

WPIAL Class 4A again will be three conferences with a total of 21 teams.

Beaver, Blackhawk, Montour and New Castle join Chartiers Valley and Aliquippa in the Parkway; Armstrong, Greensburg Salem, Highlands, Indiana and Knoch join Hampton, Mars and Plum in the Greater Allegheny; while Laurel Highlands, Ringgold, Trinity and West Mifflin are in the Big Eight Conference with McKeesport, TJ and Belle Vernon.

Thirteen teams will qualify for the Class 4A playoffs this year.

With eight teams, the Greater Allegheny Conference will have five playoff qualifiers, and the other two will have four apiece.

Beaver heads into the season with a new head coach as the Bobcats hope to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. They qualified for the postseason in their first year in Class 4A in 2018.

Cort Rowse is no stranger to Beaver football and its tradition, having played there and also serving as a longtime assistant.

He only is the third head coach in Bobcat football history. Jeff Beltz resigned after his 21st season in 2020.

“In 4A, it’s week-in-and-week-out quality opponents, quality coaches and great players,” Rowse said.

“We know it’s going to be a great challenge each week in our conference as it will be for every team in the other conferences. Our kids, we’re coming off a couple of sub-par Beaver years from what are normal expectations are. We’re going to have to go in and prepare and compete at our highest level every week. We have some kids who are going to be competing (on varsity) for the first time on Friday nights, and it will be kind of like a baptism by fire. But I am confident in the kids we have.”

THE FAVORITE

1. Thomas Jefferson (10-1)

The five-time PIAA and 10-time WPIAL champion Jaguars hope to reload for another title run. They bounced back from a loss to McKeesport in the 2020 regular-season finale, and their 35-28 overtime victory over Aliquippa in the WPIAL final at North Allegheny was an instant classic. As in prior seasons, TJ will have plenty of challengers, including the Tigers in its own conference, ready to knock them off their throne.

Preseason rankings

2. Belle Vernon (6-2)

3. Aliquippa (9-1)

4. McKeesport (6-2)

5. Plum (8-1)

THE STARS

Nick Bryan

Thomas Jefferson, sr., OT/DT

Before he begins his career at Kent State, the 6-foot-3, 275-pounder hopes for one more championship season. He verbally committed in June over offers from schools such as his other finalist, UMass, as well as Duquesne, Fordham, Lehigh and Marshall.

Rodney Gallagher

Laurel Highlands, jr., QB/DB

The speedy 6-foot dual threat and stingy defender owns nine Division I offers, including Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Michigan State. He accounted for more than 800 yards of total offense and 11 touchdowns last year.

Lorenzo Jenkins

Blackhawk, sr., WR/S

The 6-foot-3, 170-pound pass-catching threat hopes to make an impact with the Cougars after transferring from Class 5A Fox Chapel. Last season, Jenkins led the Foxes with 31 catches for 492 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games. He owns a Division I offer from Old Dominion.

Cadin Olsen

Armstrong, jr., QB

Preseason accolades have rolled in for the 6-foot-5, 205-pound signal caller who enters his second year as a starter. Olsen garnered all-state honors last year after completing 118 of 230 passes for 2,035 yards and 23 touchdowns over eight games.

Devin Whitlock

Belle Vernon, sr., QB/WR/DB

The versatile veteran player picked up his first Division I offer (Youngstown State) this summer. Whitlock averaged 203.6 all-purpose yards last season. He rushed for 1,082 yards and 15 touchdowns and threw for 528 yards.

DON’T MISS

9.24: Thomas Jefferson at Belle Vernon

The last three years, the Jaguars own victories over the Leopards after Belle Vernon toppled TJ in 2017. With Whitlock helping lead the way, the Leopards hope to reign after the rivalry’s 2021 meeting.

10.22: Thomas Jefferson at McKeesport

The Tigers snapped the Jaguars’ 21-game conference win streak in last year’s regular season finale, forging a three-way tie for the conference title with Belle Vernon. TJ will look for revenge.

10.29: New Castle at Aliquippa

For the most part, the Quips dominated Parkway Conference play in their first year up in Class 4A. They had to work for their conference-opening win over the Hurricanes, however, as they rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit to claim a 44-28 win. The game was tied at halftime.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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