Second straight WPIAL title continues long run of winning football for Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, November 22, 2020 | 11:01 AM

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Thomas Jefferson won its ninth WPIAL football title under coach Bill Cherpak, and 10th all-time, when the Jaguars edged Aliquippa, 35-28, in overtime Nov. 14 at North Allegheny.

Cherpak captured his first WPIAL crown in 2004 at age 36.

Longtime sidekick Frank Brettschneider is the only current assistant who was on staff that season.

“Chris Drager and Dom DeCicco were on that team and have been part of our staff but they are not currently coaching with us,” Cherpak said.

Back then, Britney Spears was the No. 1 pop artist. Billboard’s No. 1 song was “Yeah” by Usher and “Million Dollar Baby” was a top movie. Facebook was launched, the final episode of Friends aired, and Ben Roethlisberger was a rookie quarterback.

In other words, it’s been a long run of winning football for Thomas Jefferson.

TJ, which under Bap Mancini won its first WPIAL title in 1980 against Aliquippa, faced the Quips again in this year’s championship game.

A highly anticipated epic battle between two of the most high-profile programs in WPIAL history was expected.

The Jaguars prevailed in a nail biter to claim their second straight WPIAL crown, fifth in six years and ninth overall since 2004.

No. 1 seed Aliquippa was in the finals for the 13th consecutive season, this time moving up a class to 4A despite having a Class A enrollment as one of the smallest schools in the WPIAL.

“Aliquippa is an excellent football team. Their history speaks for itself,” Cherpak said. “They have talented and fast skill players and huge linemen. They are very well coached and do a lot of different things to use their speed and athleticism.”

The Quips voluntarily played the past four seasons in Class 3A, but the PIAA competitive-balance rule forced them up another classification. They made a successful transition, finishing 7-0 overall, 5-0 in the Parkway Conference.

Aliquippa has reached the playoffs 39 of the last 41 seasons.

The Quips presented a high-powered, quick-strike offense to go with a staunch defense. Their offensive line averaged 318 pounds per player.

The Jaguars, on the other hand, take pride in being big, physical, fast and disciplined and presented a balanced attack.

TJ was the Big 8 co-champion and No. 2 seed. The Jaguars improved to 8-1 with the tense win.

In the end, for Thomas Jefferson, the whole proved to be greater than the sum of the parts. But some of the individual parts certainly were keys to the TJ victory.

Senior QB Jake Pugh was clutch, passing for 216 yards and two touchdowns, and scoring on a pair of QB sneaks.

Senior WR Preston Zandier caught four passes covering 106 yards and had a 41-yard TD reception.

Senior RB DeRon VanBibber ran hard, picking up 67 yards on 17 carries and scoring once. He and junior RB Conner Murga combined for 107 yards on the ground.

And junior WR McClain Flinn definitely made his presence felt.

He reeled in a 20-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter to give TJ its first lead, but it was his interception in the end zone in overtime that sealed the deal for the Jaguars.

It was Flinn’s first TD catch and first interception of the season.

Defensively, junior LB Issac Eckley, Zandier, Van Bibber, Murga and junior lineman Nick Bryan provided several solid, hard-hitting stops against the hard-charging Quips.

Senior Jack Sella was 5 for 5 on PAT kicks.

And let’s not forget the dramatic 55-yard second-half kickoff return by senior WR/DB Ian Hansen that was simply clutch.


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