Familiar foes Belle Vernon, Thomas Jefferson to meet for WPIAL Class 4A title

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 | 6:00 PM

Belle Vernon knocked loudly on the WPIAL championship door two years in a row without an answer, each time losing in the semifinals.

This year, for the first time in team history, the Leopards are headed to Heinz Field.

“We were finally able to kick in that door and get there,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. “We’re excited to be there. We’re happy to play on that surface. It’s been a goal of ours for arguably the past five years.”

Waiting there is an opponent that seems to have a key to Heinz Field.

Top-seeded Thomas Jefferson (12-0), making its fifth consecutive championship appearance, plays No. 3 Belle Vernon (10-1) in the WPIAL Class 4A final at 5 p.m. Saturday.

TJ seeks its ninth WPIAL title overall and its eighth under coach Bill Cherpak, who could tie Bob Palko for most in WPIAL history. The Jaguars were WPIAL runners-up to South Fayette last year.

Belle Vernon, making its first WPIAL championship appearance since 1999 at Three Rivers Stadium, hopes its patience is rewarded.

Consider, TJ lost in the semifinals five years in a row before making the WPIAL finals in 2003. The Jaguars then reached the finals six seasons in a row and won four titles.

Sometimes, that semifinal hurdle is huge.

“The mantra has always been: ‘We needed a group of kids who was able to kick down that door,’” Humbert said. “This was the year. A lot of the kids have been starters since they were sophomores. As seniors, they were the ones to finally break through.”

Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon know one another well. The championship pairing is a Big Eight rematch that TJ won 34-7 in Week 2. It’s the fifth meeting between the conference rivals in the past three seasons.

TJ has won three of the past four.

“Any time you play someone twice and have as much familiarity as we have with them, I don’t know if it makes it easier or harder,” Cherpak said. “You nitpick little things more than you would.”

That final score from Week 2 was lopsided — 27 points — but each team analyzes that game differently. The score was tied 7-7 at halftime before Thomas Jefferson pulled away.

Each team had a first-half touchdown catch. TJ’s Dan Deabner caught a 36-yarder and Belle Vernon’s Hunter Ruokonen had a 23-yarder. TJ scored four rushing touchdowns in the second half, including two by quarterback Shane Stump.

“Neither team played very well,” Cherpak said. “We’re both much, much different and better teams since that time. I’m not sure that really has any bearing on the game at all.”

“Our narrative is, it was good football in the first half,” Humbert said. “It was 7-7 going into the third quarter, and we kind of gave the game away.”

That defeat was Belle Vernon’s only loss this year. The Leopards have won nine in a row since, including a back-and-forth, 41-30 victory over South Fayette in the semifinals.

“That loss Week 2 kind of helped refocus us a little bit,” Humbert said. “We had high expectations coming into this season. That second week motivated us that we need to do a little more. Ever since then the kids have really kicked it up a notch. The coaches have kicked it up a notch in terms of pushing the kids and coaching them a little harder. I think that’s paid off.”

Belle Vernon scored the final 20 points last week to rally against South Fayette. Senior running back Larry Callaway rushed for 188 yards and a touchdown, pushing his season total over 1,000 yards. He has 17 touchdowns.

Senior quarterback Jared Hartman threw for two touchdowns last week, giving him 29 this season. Hartman was injured and missed last year’s playoffs but has rebounded this season with 1,745 passing yards. His top targets are receivers Nolan Labuda (10 TDs) and Ruokonen (8 TDs).

Thomas Jefferson is coming off a dominant 49-0 victory over Blackhawk. Deabner scored four touchdowns last week, three on passes from Stump and one on a 49-yard punt return.

Stump pushed his touchdown total to 31 with only one interception. The senior has thrown for 2,149 yards, and Deabner has 834 yards on 38 catches with 19 total touchdowns.

Dylan Mallozzi is the team’s top rusher with 1,205 yards and 18 touchdowns on 123 carries.

“We’re going to have to play great defense,” Humbert said. “We’re going to have to weather the storm because they’ll strike big plays. We have to make them sustain drives. You never want a team taking 7 minutes off the clock, either, but we need to make sure they’re not hitting big plays every two or three (snaps).”

Thomas Jefferson won three consecutive WPIAL titles in 2015-17 before losing last season to South Fayette, 31-24, at Heinz Field. South Fayette was seeded second this year, but Belle Vernon prevented a rematch.

“Someone asked, ‘Didn’t they really want a rematch with South Fayette?’” Cherpak said. “I don’t think so. They just wanted an opportunity to go back and win. That’s what it’s all about.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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