Senior class helps Thomas Jefferson football add to overflowing trophy case

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Sunday, December 6, 2020 | 10:16 AM


Two PIAA championships, three WPIAL titles, three conference crowns.

In a nutshell, that describes the four-year varsity careers of the seniors in the Thomas Jefferson football program.

The Jaguars topped previously undefeated and District 4 winner Jersey Shore, 21-14, in the PIAA Class 4A finals Nov. 28 at Hersheypark Stadium.

With the victory, TJ (10-1) repeated as both WPIAL and state champion and now has won a record-setting five PIAA titles.

“From (possibly) having no season to back-to-back state champions, it was a wild ride,” coach Bill Cherpak said. “The kids were great with all the distractions and precautions we needed to implement. They did what was asked of them to make it work. I couldn’t be more proud of them.

“There were some obstacles like no summer camp, limited summer workouts, abbreviated preseason and a six-game conference season. Through all of that, they persevered and got things done.”

The Jaguars registered a 48-4 record since 2017 and won 26 of 28 conference games.

“There were certainly teams with more talent than we had (this year), but our kids found a way to win,” Cherpak said. “From the playoff games versus Plum and Aliquippa to the championship game versus Jersey Shore, they just would not be denied. Coach (Jack) Giran and the defense were the main reasons why we were able to beat Plum, Aliquippa and Jersey Shore. All three were explosive, high-scoring offenses that we were able to limit and control.

“It was always an overall team effort with different players stepping up to make big plays when we needed them.”

And all this with only four returning senior starters — WR/LB Preston Zandier, WR/DB Ian Hansen, OL/DL Nick Trainor and OL/DL Jake Krawczyk.

Zandier has a rich football heritage. His brother, TJ grad Zane Zandier, is a 6-foot-3, 230-pound all-conference linebacker and fourth-year player at Virginia.

For his career, the younger Zandier finished with 76 receptions, 1,246 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also was a terror on defense, racking up 78 total tackles the past two seasons.

“This year was crazy,” Zandier said. “There were so many obstacles our team faced with covid and having so many new guys stepping into key roles. We battled to find ways to win any way possible, and I’m so proud of my teammates.

“Being able to experience three WPIAL and two state championships in my TJ football career is something very few athletes get to experience, and I’m so happy I was a part of it. Winning back-to-back state championships is absolutely insane, and I’m so happy to be able to go out a champion.”

Hansen fought off a few injuries to emerge as one of the Jaguars’ leading offensive threats the last two seasons. For his career, he reeled in 83 passes for 1,564 yards and scored 16 times.

This season, Hansen (42-785 7 TDs) and Zandier (47-718, 12 TDs) proved near unstoppable, combining for 1,503 yards and 19 scores on 89 receptions. Hansen averaged 18.7 yards per catch; Zander finished with a 15.3-yard average. Both were named first-team all-conference on offense and defense.

Senior QB/DB Jake Pugh moved up from his reserve role a year ago to log a wildly successful season under center. Pugh hit on 113 of 192 passes for 1,881 yards and 25 touchdowns and eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark for his career.

Pugh passed for 2,065 yards and 29 TDs as a three-year letterman, completing 120 of 204 attempts with eight interceptions.

TJ was sparked on the ground by the one-two punch of junior RB/LB Conner Murga (111-821, 12 TDs) and senior RB/DB DeRon VanBibber (139-648, 6 TDs), who combined for 1,469 yards and 18 touchdowns on 250 carries.

Between them, Murga and VanBibber averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

TJ ended up 10-1 this year, recorded four shutouts and outscored the opposition 437-120, averaging 39.7 points and allowing 10.9 points per game.

Hard-charging junior FB/LB Isaac Eckley led the defense with 72 tackles and a blocked punt.

Other defensive stalwarts included Hansen, VanBibber, Murga and senior TE/DL Jack Konick, who wrapped up his career with 47 tackles, eight sacks and five recovered fumbles.

Konick, a first-team all-conference selection on defense, achieved an awe-inspiring feat in TJ’s final regular-season game against McKeesport: After suffering a torn ACL and meniscus in the first quarter, Konick played the rest of the game unaware of the status of his injury.

“I just got my surgery done,” Konick said. “Everything went well. Now it’s time to rehab and have a healthy recovery. I injured my knee in the first quarter. Not thinking anything was wrong, I finished out the game.”

Konick believes the Jaguars displayed remarkable resiliency and resolve this season.

“This year’s team was something different,” he said. “We were never the most talented team, but that never held us back. My teammates are resilient and do whatever is necessary to win. This team meant everything to me, and the way we always proved people wrong still motivates me. I am forever grateful for all the coaches and players having my back.

“These past four years were something I will never forget. It taught me so many lessons and I will be forever thankful.”

TE/DL Jordan Mayer, a 6-4, 227-pound sophomore, also made some big noise in 2020, particularly on defense. Mayer accounted for 27 tackles and one blocked punt.

TJ’s defense was outstanding against Jersey Shore, racking up 13 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. The Bulldogs (10-1) were held to negative rushing yardage and 111 total yards on 57 offensive plays.

Mayer and junior OL/DL Nick Bryan, who was voted first-team all-conference on offense, finished with two sacks apiece.

The play of the game was registered by TJ senior WR/DB Rex Miller, who knocked a third-down pass away from Jersey Shore’s Dalton Dugan at the goal line in the final seconds of the game.

“When they motioned away from me, I knew there was a good chance the ball was coming my way, as they hadn’t thrown toward me for awhile,” Miller said. “That helped me be ready for the play. When I saw the ball was in the air, my first instinct was just to make sure the WR didn’t catch it. I wasn’t necessarily worried about the pick. I just couldn’t let them score. I was able to get into the right position to hit the ball away.”

Miller continued: “I thought our team was great the whole year. We were really good at finding ways to win in close game situations. I couldn’t be more proud to be on the team the last four years. The memories I made with my teammates will last a lifetime.”

And, of course, the biggest interception of the year for the Jaguars was provided by junior WR/DB McClain Flinn, who intercepted an Aliquippa pass in the end zone in overtime in TJ’s thrilling 35-28 win in the WPIAL championship game.

Most of the seniors on this year’s squad said Aliquippa was the best team they faced in 2020.

“Aliquippa matched our physicality and intensity,” said Alby Breisinger, a 6-2, 250-pound senior lineman. “Also, they were an experienced team that had played in plenty of big games, so they didn’t break down when faced with adversity.”

Miller also was impressed with the Quips.

“We played a lot of good teams, but I thought Aliquippa was the best,” he said. “They had great players at every position.”

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