Cupboard anything but bare for powerful Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, August 24, 2021 | 6:01 AM

Thomas Jefferson repeated as WPIAL and state titlists in Class 4A last season, finishing 10-1 overall.

The Jaguars built on their championship culture, winning their 10th WPIAL title and record-setting fifth PIAA crown.

And guess what?

There were 18 sophomores and 24 freshmen on the 71-player varsity roster a year ago. Coach Bill Cherpak said that freshman group was one of the best he’s been around in a while.

“There will probably be a lot of sophomores starting this year,” said TJ’s veteran field boss. “But there are many positions to fill, so we won’t know who many of the starters will be until the end of camp and the position battles play themselves out.

“Our expectations remain the same as always: win the conference, WPIAL and PIAA championships. I don’t have to say anything. The kids understand the tradition they are part of and embrace the lofty expectations on the program.”

The Jaguars appear to be well-equipped to make another serious title run in 2021, as several of last year’s starters were underclassmen, particularly on the lines.

A cornerstone of the program’s well-documented winning tradition has been the performance of the offensive line. Cherpak anticipates having another bullish group this season, led by Kent State recruit Nick Bryan.

“We expect Nick to be one of the team leaders and a role model for our younger players,” Cherpak said. “We expect our offensive and defensive lines to be one of the strengths of our team this year.”

Bryan, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound senior, started two ways at tackle in 2020. He was touted as a first-team all-conference selection on offense and was named to the PA Football News Coaches 4A all-state team.

“The expectation this year is to be the first three-time state champ in TJ (football) history,” Bryan said. “Being a leader on my team is one of my biggest goals, and I want to finish the season healthy. I pride myself on having an old school, gritty lineman mentality.”

Bryan had a busy offseason on the recruiting trail. Along with Kent State and his other finalist, UMass, he landed offers from Old Dominion, Marshall, Holy Cross, The Citadel, Army, Fordham, Lehigh, Austin Peay, Duquesne and Ball State.

Bryan and senior Owen Myer most likely will lock down the tackle positions on offense. Other top linemen include seniors Logan Timko and Conner Murga, juniors Peyton Krueger, Jordan Mayer and Nick Florian and sophomore Mike Hutchinson.

“We have a lot of experience on both lines,” Cherpak said, “with some high-caliber players.”

Offensively, Murga is a rising star at running back.

He rushed for 821 yards and 12 scores on 111 carries in 11 games last season while sharing the backfield with then-senior Deron VanBibber (139-648, 6 TDs).

Isaac Eckley, a hard-hitting senior and team leader in tackles, is a third-year starter at linebacker and the undisputed leader on defense.

He also manned the fullback spot last season, helping open holes for the rushing game. TJ scored 58 times on the ground and rushed for close to 270 yards per game.

“It was a crazy season,” Eckley said, “but we fought through adversity and found a way to win. We had great leaders around us.”

Eckley was impressed by one opponent in particular.

Aliquippa,” he said. “With their huge linemen and skill players, they were such a versatile team. Then, yet again, with great coaching and with determination, we found a way to win.”

The Jaguars are looking to win again this season, and win often.

“My early expectations are very high coming off two state championships,” Eckley said, “and I hope to do well again this season. I would say our line is one of the best parts of our team and we will build around that.”

An unheralded player last fall was the athletic Joe Lekse, who started in the secondary and should be a major factor on this year’s squad.

Leske, a senior, and sophomore Brody Evans have been vying for the starting quarterback job in the preseason.

Senior WR/LB McClain Flinn, the star against Aliquippa in the WPIAL finals, senior Angelo Volomino, sophomore Sean Sullivan and junior Danny Carroll appear to be the leading candidates in the TJ receiving corps.

Thomas Jefferson

Coach: Bill Cherpak

2020 record: 10-1, 5-1 in Class 4A Big Eight Conference

All-time record: 481-203-7


Date, Opponent, Time

9.3 at Gateway, 7

9.10 South Fayette, 7

9.17 Trinity*, 7

9.24 at Belle Vernon*, 7

10.8 at Laurel Highlands*, 7

10.15 Ringgold*, 7

10.22 at McKeesport*, 7

10.29 West Mifflin*, 7

*Conference game


Passing: Jake Pugh*

113-192, 1,881 yards, 25 TDs

Receiving: Ian Hansen*

42-785, 7 TDs

Rushing: Conner Murga

111-821, 12 TDs



• Thomas Jefferson has won WPIAL championships in five of the past six seasons, finished as a WPIAL runner-up once, secured two PIAA titles and compiled a 71-8 overall record.

• Bill Cherpak leads all area football coaches with nine WPIAL titles and five state crowns. His career record at TJ is 284-47 (.858 winning percentage). Since Cherpak’s first year as coach in 1995, the Jaguars have had two undefeated seasons, 11 with one loss and five with two losses.

• QBs Shane Stump (2,478 yards, 33 TDs) and Jake Pugh (1,881 yards, 25 TDs) threw for 4,359 yards and 58 scores between them over the past two seasons.

• Over the past 10 years, the Jaguars have lost just five conference games while winning 71, registered six undefeated regular seasons and won eight conference titles.


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