Belle Vernon, Thomas Jefferson to square off with undefeated records on the line

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Wednesday, September 20, 2023 | 6:22 PM


Don’t think for one moment that Friday’s nonconference game between Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon is meaningless.

Far from it.

These teams, a mere 12 miles apart, have met annually, except for 1990 and 1991, since 1965. Thomas Jefferson leads the series 37-23, with Belle Vernon winning the past three meetings. Most of the games came when they were part of the Big Ten Conference.

And while the game doesn’t count in the conference standings, Thomas Jefferson (4-0) is ranked No. 2 in Class 4A, Belle Vernon (3-0) is No. 1 in Class 3A, and there is an undefeated season on the line.

The storylines between the schools have been legendary.

• Late Thomas Jefferson coach Bap Manzini coached at Bellmar, which merged with Rostraver to create Belle Vernon Area.

• There was quarterback Jimbo Cramer, who transferred from Belle Vernon to Thomas Jefferson to play with Manzini in 1969. Belle Vernon got the last laugh that season when the Dick Fields-led Leopards, behind a big game from former Belle Vernon coach Gary Dongilli, upset the Jaguars, 18-0.

• And there was 1980, when then-Belle Vernon coach Jeff Petrucci and Manzini shared notes to help the Jaguars win the WPIAL Class 3A title against Aliquippa, which defeated Belle Vernon in the semifinals.

Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak is mourning the loss of his father, Regis, who died earlier this week. He was 82.

“It’s been a tough week,” said Cherpak, who has coached at TJ for 28 years. “But we’ll get through it.

“I told my players this is the kind of game you want to play in. We’ve had some great battles with them over the years. The players know each other, and there are many storylines. It’s going to be a great game.”

Belle Vernon has won the previous three meetings, including a 21-7 victory last year at Thomas Jefferson.

“This game is not only big for the teams, but for the communities,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “When we play, it’s the largest gates for the schools. It’s a game everyone wants to see.

“I didn’t realize the teams have been playing since 1965. This is my 11th game. There are no shortages of storylines.”

Both teams have players with ties to Monessen. Thomas Jefferson running back Elias Lippincott has family in Monessen, and Belle Vernon running back Quinton Martin’s dad played for Monessen. Belle Vernon junior wide receiver Anthony Crews transferred from Monessen two years ago.

When Cherpak became coach, he said Elizabeth Forward was the biggest rival. After that, it was West Mifflin.

“I didn’t realize the teams have been playing so long,” Cherpak said. “They are usually good games. I wish it was a little earlier. Since they moved to Class 3A, we only play them in football.”

Belle Vernon is the returning PIAA and WPIAL Class 3A champion. The Leopards return numerous starters from that squad, including Martin, a Penn State commit, quarterback Braden Laux, running back Jake Gedekoh, Crews and linebacker Adam LaCarte.

“They have a lot returning,” Cherpak said. “The biggest thing is they know what it takes to be a champion. They learned that last year. That’s important. They are the best team we’ll face so far.

“We’ve been playing well. The two-quarterback system is working well, and our running backs, Mike Banda and Lippincott, have run well. Some of our new linemen are doing a good job picking up things.”

Brody Evans and Luke Kosko are the quarterbacks. Evans has thrown for 486 yards and two touchdowns, and Kosko has thrown for 289 yards and three scores. Sean Sullivan has caught 25 passes for 504 yards and three scores.

Banda has rushed for 318 yards and six touchdowns, and Lippincott has scored eight touchdowns and rushed for 240 yards.

Martin has rushed for 222 yards and caught 10 passes for 67 yards. He has scored five touchdowns.

Laux is 28 of 42 for 236 yards, and Gedekoh has rushed for 131 yards. He ran well in last week’s 21-0 win at Penn-Trafford.

“We approach this season as two seasons,” Humbert said. “There are the games against Laurel Highlands, McKeesport, Penn-Trafford and Thomas Jefferson. And then there are the conference games.

“The first part of the schedule definitely prepares for the latter part of the season. You want to play big games like this. It should be a lot of fun.”

All-time series

TJ leads, 37-23

2022: BVA, 21-7

2021: BVA, 28-21

2021: BVA, 21-7 (playoffs)

2020: TJ, 42-21

2019: TJ, 34-7

2019: TJ, 41-7 (playoffs)

2018: TJ, 36-14

2017: BVA, 21-17

2017: TJ, 27-0 (playoffs)

2016: TJ, 55-0

2015: BVA, 31-24 (OT)

2014: TJ, 44-12

2013: TJ, 35-0

2012: TJ, 57-20

2011: TJ, 41-7

2010: TJ, 14-13

2009: TJ, 26-20

2008: TJ, 42-14

2007: TJ, 40-21

2006: TJ, 48-0

2005: TJ, 41-0

2004: TJ, 28-0

2003: TJ, 38-7

2002: TJ, 43-0

2001: TJ, 20-13

2000: BVA, 24-20

1999: BVA, 27-7

1998: BVA, 21-9

1997: BVA, 21-7

1996: BVA, 21-13

1996: BVA, 26-14 (playoffs)

1995: TJ, 15-0

1994: BVA, 28-13

1993: TJ, 7-6

1992: TJ, 33-7

1989: BVA, 30-0

1988: TJ, 10-7

1987: BVA, 17-7

1986: BVA, 30-20

1985: BVA, 33-0

1984: TJ, 7-0

1983: BVA, 39-12

1982: TJ, 35-7

1981: TJ, 7-0

1980: BVA, 10-6

1979: BVA, 24-13

1978: BVA, 10-0

1977: TJ, 35-6

1976: BVA, 16-0

1975: TJ, 27-6

1974: TJ, 23-0

1973: TJ, 22-14

1972: TJ, 27-0

1971: TJ, 36-0

1970: TJ, 26-6

1969: BVA, 18-0

1968: TJ, 14-7

1967: TJ, 27-0

1966: TJ, 6-0

1965: BVA, 7-6

Paul Schofield is a TribLive reporter covering high school and college sports and local golf. He joined the Trib in 1995 after spending 15 years at the Daily Courier in Connellsville, where he served as sports editor for 14 years. He can be reached at pschofield@triblive.com.

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