Early-season showdown could play major factor in Big Eight Conference

Wednesday, September 4, 2019 | 6:45 PM

Could Friday’s WPIAL Class 4A Big Eight Conference battle be a preview of the WPIAL championship?

No. 1 Thomas Jefferson (2-0, 1-0) and No. 2 Belle Vernon (1-0, 0-0) hope it is.

Friday’s early-season matchup at Thomas Jefferson could determine the Big Eight Conference championship. And even though Thomas Jefferson’s biggest rival is considered West Mifflin, Jaguars coach Bill Cherpak said Belle Vernon is a game his players most look forward to playing.

“The players on both teams know each other well and get excited about playing this game,” Cherpak said. “It’s always a good game, and the team that plays well and makes the least mistakes usually wins.”

And in Thomas Jefferson’s case, the two times Belle Vernon has beaten the Jaguars over the past four seasons (2015 and ’17), TJ has gone on to win a WPIAL title.

Belle Vernon ended TJ’s 57-game home winning streak in 2015.

“The neat things about playing this game so early, it’s a big game you can get your players ready for,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “I feel 4A is a very consistent bracket with competition, but sometimes you do face challenges week by week when it might not be much of a contest.

“This is a game (where you can) say this is the type of team you want to be if you want to win it all.”

One thing for sure, neither coach has to worry about his quarterback not being ready for the big game.

Thomas Jefferson senior Shane Stump and Belle Vernon senior Jared Hartman have gone head-to-head the past three years. Hartman led the Leopards to the regular-season win in 2017, and Stump was behind center for the playoff win in 2017 and last year’s regular-season victory.

“It’s hard for me to put into words what Jared brings to the table,” Humbert said. “He’s the type of kid that understands everything. He’s a kid we rely on in terms of giving him access to run or throw the ball.

“He’s like having a second coach on the field. Regardless how we run the ball or throw the ball, him managing the offense is a luxury for us.”

Hartman, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2018, returned the field to lead the Leopards to a 58-0 win at Ambridge last Friday.

While the Leopards breezed to a win, Humbert said penalties were a problem in the second scrimmage and the Ambridge game.

“That’s something we have to fix now,” Humbert said. “You can’t afford to play behind the sticks in this game especially.”

Thomas Jefferson opened the season with impressive wins against Canon-McMillan (54-10) and Ringgold (48-6).

Stump has completed 14 of 30 passes for 371 yards and five touchdowns. He also has rushed for 154 yards. His top receivers have been senior Daniel Deabner, who has four catches for 105 yards; junior Preston Zandier, who has four catches for 149 yards; and junior Ian Hansen, who has five catches for 85 yards.

Sharing the running duties for TJ are senior Dylan Mallozzi, who has rushed for 181 yards; junior DeRon VanBidder, who has 56 yards and three touchdowns; and sophomore Isaac Eckley, who has gained 98 yards.

“Everyone knows we want to still run the ball, Cherpak said. “With Shane, we’ll be more balanced.”

And Thomas Jefferson’s balance has Humbert concerned.

“They’re about 50/50 run and pass,” Humbert said. “Usually teams don’t change much. We know what they like to do, and they know what we want to do.

“Defensively, they always remain consistent. But Bill will always throw a few new looks. They are extremely balanced running the football and passing the ball.”

And if this game goes as expected, it should be a good one.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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