Despite graduation losses, Thomas Jefferson retains title aspirations

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Sunday, August 23, 2020 | 11:19 PM


Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Trib HSSN’s high school football preview series. One WPIAL conference will be previewed each day through Wednesday, Sept. 9.

Thomas Jefferson returned to the top of the WPIAL mountain last season, and the Jaguars hope to stay there this fall.

The Jaguars were upset by South Fayette in the 2018 Class 4A final to end an attempt at a fourth consecutive WPIAL crown. But they rolled through the competition last year en route to an eighth title since 2004.

To add icing to an already tasty cake, Thomas Jefferson capped the 2019 season by crushing Dallas, 46-7, in Hershey to claim its fourth PIAA championship and first since winning back-to-back titles in 2007-08.

While the Jaguars lost some key pieces from last year’s championship run, the cupboard is far from bare, and veteran coach Bill Cherpak likes the way the different experience levels are meshing in advance of the season.

“We always instill in the kids the goal of being a program that endures with longevity and not be a team that is good here and there,” said Cherpak, who saw his team compile a 16-0 record.

“We lost a lot of great players from last year’s team, including seven or eight who were two- or three-year starters. That is a lot of experience, but we have some young kids who have been doing really well and will hold their own. I don’t think we will be where we were last year. Those teams don’t come along that often.”

With only a few starters back on offense and defense, Cherpak said there has been competition at pretty much every position.

“They have been working hard,” he said. “It’s been such a different vibe. As a coach and a coaching staff, you kind of have the same routine every summer to get an idea of where your kids are. This whole pandemic has slowed us down at times, but it’s been the same for everyone. The kids have worked pretty hard and are resilient.”

The WPIAL, in response to the PIAA’s season-change options that delayed the start of the season, adopted a model for football that involves both game movement and elimination from the original schedules.

The Jaguars will scrimmage Gateway on Sept. 4, and a conference game at West Mifflin has been moved to Sept. 11, replacing a nonconference game against former Class 4A rival South Fayette.

“We’ve kind of just channeled that stuff out, the whole entire team, and have just focused on getting ready for the season,” senior center Nick Trainor said. “We just want to play football, especially the seniors. We’ve gotten in some good work as a team.”

Senior Jake Pugh, the backup last year to the graduated Shane Stump, is the favorite to take the quarterback reins.

“He’s waited his turn, and we feel he’s ready,” Cherpak said.

Senior running back/defensive back DeRon VanBibber is hoping for a positive comeback after missing the second half of last season with a knee injury.

“(The knee) is feeling good. I’m just ready to get back out there,” VanBibber said. “Last year really opened up my eyes to appreciate the brotherhood of football. Shane Stump and all the other guys made me feel like I was still a big part of the team even though I was hurt and couldn’t play. In the offseason, my goal was to get bigger, faster and stronger so I can come back and contribute in a big way.”

Seniors Ian Hansen and Preston Zandier, who combined for 1,147 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, return as top targets in the passing game.

Up front, Trainer (center) and senior Jake Krawczyk (left guard) anchor a sizable offensive line. Cherpak said there are several battling for the other spots, as well as time at defensive tackle.

Senior defensive end Jack Konick recorded 28 tackles and four sacks last year.

Junior inside linebacker Isaac Eckley, also a fullback on offense, led all returnees with 47 tackles.

Hansen, who helped front the defense last year with seven interceptions, is expected to again be a playmaker with the likes of Zandier (outside linebacker) and VanBibber (defensive back).

Cherpak said this year’s freshman group is one of the best he’s had in a while and a couple of them could challenge for playing time.

“They are hard workers, I’ll tell you that,” Trainor said.

Thomas Jefferson hopes to build on a 16-game winning streak in conference play. The last loss came at the hands of Belle Vernon in Week 7 of 2017.

The Jaguars and Leopards meet Sept. 15 in a rematch of last year’s WPIAL title game.

“With our schedule, it will be a challenge every Friday,” Cherpak said.

Schedule

Coach: Bill Cherpak

2019 record: 16-0, 7-0 in Class 4A Big Eight Conference

All-time record: 471-202-7

Date, Opponent, Time

9.11, at West Mifflin*, 7:30

9.18, at Trinity*, 7

9.25, Belle Vernon*, 7:30

10.2, at Uniontown, 7

10.9, Laurel Highlands*, 7:30

10.16, at Ringgold*, 7

10.23, McKeesport*, 7:30

*Class 4A Big Eight Conference game

Statistical leaders

Passing: Shane Stump*

123-209, 2,478 yards, 33 TDs

Receiving: Dan Deabner*

49-1,103 yards, 20 TDs

Rushing: Dylan Mallozzi*

219-1,921 yards, 28 TDs

*Graduated

Fast facts

• DeRon VanBibber had collected 290 rushing yards and eight touchdowns over six games before his knee injury ended his season.

• Thomas Jefferson’s WPIAL title in 2019 was its ninth in team history. The Jaguars won their first crown in 1980 before returning to the top in 2004.

• With the win in the state title game, Bill Cherpak owns a 273-46 career record. He now is fifth on the all-time WPIAL victory list.

• The Jaguars are 63-22 all-time in WPIAL playoff games and 59-16 under Cherpak.

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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