Showdown between Thomas Jefferson, Belle Vernon has big-game feel

Thursday, September 23, 2021 | 10:56 PM

There will be no better place to be tonight for a high school football fan than James Weir Stadium.

The long-awaited showdown between Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon kicks off at 7 p.m. on the gold turf, with an inside track to a Big 8 Conference title on the line.

There are storylines aplenty, but in the end, it’s two rivals ready to go to war.

“It is going to be an awesome environment for high school football, something that the kids from both teams will remember forever,” TJ head coach Bill Cherpak said. “That is one of the best stadiums to watch and play a game. Most high school players don’t get to play in games like this with the amount of excitement and attention it has received.

“It will be great for everyone involved. The crazy part of it is that win or lose … we will probably face each other again down the road.”

Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert is expecting a capacity crowd for the Jaguars’ first trip to the Beach in three years.

“I think that it’s going to be similar to that Ringgold game in 2015. I expect about 5,000 people and I expect it to be chaotic and fun,” he said.

Eyes on both sides will be focused on Belle Vernon quarterback Devin Whitlock and running back Quinton Martin, who have showed their big-play prowess when they’ve taken the field this season.

Whitlock has 769 total yards, passing for 400 and rushing for 369. Of those, 208 came two weeks ago against Penn-Trafford.

“I think that’s what’s always mentioned, but if you watch our games this season, we’ve been maintaining possession of the ball and sustaining drives. That’s what we’re going to have to do to win this game,” Humbert said. “We can’t get into the habit of running limited plays. Yes, the big plays are nice, but we want to make sure we’re trying to be balanced in our approach.”

Martin had a breakout game against West Mifflin, finishing with 160 yards on only nine carries. He scored three touchdowns.

Thomas Jefferson has been equally impressive this season, with big wins over Gateway and South Fayette.

“The biggest thing that’s impressed me about our team is the play of our quarterback and all the other first-time starters,” Cherpak said. “We have a lot of starters playing well that are starting for the first time.”

Joe Lekse has stepped in nicely at quarterback, completing 15 of 23 passes for 304 yards. He has four touchdowns and hasn’t thrown an interception. He’s also the team’s leading rusher with 205 yards on the ground.

“Joe does whatever he needs to do to help us win,” Cherpak said. “Whether it’s running the ball, passing or just handing it off. He’s a winner, extremely intelligent.”

Cherpak admits his defense will have its hands full trying to contain Whitlock.

“That team is extremely explosive. Obviously, Whitlock makes them go,” Cherpak said. “He’s in the top three most explosive, dynamic players I’ve ever coached against.

“We have to try to limit their big plays on offense. We need to make them earn yardage and not allow those long touchdowns. Same on special teams.”

Humbert hopes his weapons do their thing, but there are other players stepping up that make the Leopards even more dangerous.

“It’s going to take everybody to win this game,” Humbert said. “We’ve had contributions from (Chase) Ruokonen, Evan Pohlot, Jake (Gedekoh) and Cole (Weightman) on offense. Everyone is a weapon.”

Defensively, the Leopards will look to slow down the Jaguars’ rushing attack, led by Connor Murga. He’s coming off a 200-yard rushing game.

“They’re similar to Penn-Trafford, only TJ is a totally different scheme. PT had the girth. TJ has a lot more speed on the line,” Humbert said. “We have to do what we can to get them out of their comfort zone of running the ball the way they have.”

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