Successful Thomas Jefferson football season not without its hiccups

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Sunday, November 8, 2020 | 11:01 AM


Nightmarish is defined as “frightening or unpleasant.” Exasperating is another word that comes to mind.

For the Thomas Jefferson football team, the start and finish of its 2020 regular season aptly fit the definition, albeit for very different reasons.

Its season opener was postponed because of covid-19 issues. At the end of its schedule, TJ was upset at home by McKeesport, 20-14. The Jaguars turned in a nightmarish performance with four critical turnovers and were assessed several deflating penalties in their first-ever matchup with the Tigers.

It was the lowest point total in a regular season game for TJ since 2011.

The Jaguars ended up tied with McKeesport and Belle Vernon atop the Class 4A Big Eight Conference, all with 5-1 records.

TJ has won 21 conference titles in coach Bill Cherpak’s successful 26-year reign.

“Considering the circumstances, I feel it has been a very successful season so far,” Cherpak said. “We were so close to not even having a season. We are grateful the PIAA stood up for the kids and allowed us to play.

“Also, considering the fact we had three returning starters on both sides of the ball, no football camp and hardly any preseason, I really feel like this group has done a terrific job. I am very proud of how well they have handled the situation. We’ve had numerous injuries to key players, and other players have stepped up to fill in and have done a great job.

“There have been so many changes in just the way we operate on a daily basis with meetings and practices. It has been difficult but certainly worth it.”

The TJ gridders took offensive and defensive averages of 43 ppg and 9.2 ppg into the WPIAL playoffs, where they rang up a convincing 41-6 first-round win Oct. 30 against Mars.

“I love what I see in our team,” said Preston Zandier, a dynamic senior wide receiver/linebacker. “We have had so many young guys step into important roles, and there’s been some setbacks, but everyone gives max effort, and that’s all the coaches and us older guys ask for. Our one and only goal is to stay on top as state champions.”

Zandier and senior receiver/defensive back Ian Hansen have been catalysts for the Jaguars this season.

A Youngstown State recruit, Zandier caught 28 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns. In his team’s first-round playoff game, he reeled in six receptions for 113 yards and three scores. Zander also ranks among the team’s leading tacklers.

“The (McKeesport) loss really woke us up and made us work even harder,” Zandier said. “That game was a heartbreaker, and I think we played good enough to beat them. The turnovers killed us, and they had two big plays on offense that put them ahead.”

Hansen complemented Zandier in the receiving corps with 17 catches for 390 yards and five TDs, averaging 22.9 yards per reception. He opened the year with four touchdown catches in the first two games. In Week 2, he accounted for eight receptions for 195 yards.

Hansen missed almost five weeks with injuries. He sparked the Jaguars against Mars with seven catches for 99 yards and one score.

“I believe we have an amazing shot to win the WPIAL and go back to back,” Hansen said, “but we have to focus on our keys against each team.

“We made too many mistakes in the McKeesport game. If we could have eliminated one of those turnovers or penalties in the red zone, the game easily could’ve went the other way. We still battled the whole game and did not give up.”

Senior QB Jake Pugh finished the regular season one yard shy of the 1,000-yard mark in the passing department, hitting on 60 of 99 tosses with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Pugh averaged 165 yards passing per game.

He completed 9-of-11 passes for 222 yards and five scores Sept. 11 against West Mifflin. He was near-perfect against Mars, connecting on 14-of-15 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns.

“I am proud of the way my guys are playing this year. We’re loaded with talent, for sure.” Pugh said. “It has been a great season so far and we’re definitely having a lot of fun. We all know our goals as a team, and we are focused on achieving those goals.

“We had a tough loss, but we bounced back, and I think we are continuing to get better and work together more fluently.”

TJ’s top regular-season rushers were senior DeRon VanBibber (78-404) and junior Conner Murga (42-316), who combined for 720 yards and 13 TDs.

Murga led the team in scoring with nine TDs, including a five-touchdown performance Oct. 9 against Laurel Highlands.

VanBibber, who’s been battling injuries the past two years, ran for 161 yards on 32 carries Sept. 25 versus Belle Vernon.

“We obviously want to get back to Hershey but we can’t overlook any team,” VanBibber said. “Cherp always says, “It’s hard to get to the top, but it’s even harder to stay there.’

“We can’t look back now. We came out slow (against McKeesport) and we had some mistakes that we’ve been working on and correcting.”

The Jaguars’ offensive line has been anchored by senior center Nick Trainor, senior guards Alby Breisinger and Jake Krawczyk, junior tackles Owen Meyer and Nick Bryan and senior TE Jack Konick. A season highlight for Konick was a 52-yard TD catch Oct. 16 against Ringgold.

Sophomore Andrew Graham and senior Jack Sella, both soccer players, were successful on 34 PAT kicks and two field goals.

Team leaders on defense include junior linebacker Isaac Eckley, sophomore lineman Jordan Mayer and Konick, who missed the first-round playoff game because of an injury. Eckley led in tackles and blocked a punt during the regular season.

TJ’s defensive line has stood firm behind Konick, Bryan, senior Seth Lieberum and sophomores Nick Florian, Peyton Krueger and Mayer.

Murga and senior Aiden Palmer joined Eckley and Zandier at linebacker, with junior Joe Lekse and seniors Rex Miller, Shultz Reinhart and VanBibber sharing time in the secondary.

Along with his four TD receptions, Zandier returned an interception 43 yards and a punt 48 yards for scores.

“Covid-19 this season has changed how we run things a little with wearing our masks all the time and doing simple things like watching film together,” Zandier said. “But Cherp set the standard from Day 1, so it’s normal now.

“Honestly, I think it’s made all of us compete even more because the coaches stress how we have no way to tell if it’s our last game or practice, so we don’t want to regret not going 100%.”

The senior class was honored prior to TJ’s regular-season finale.

Breisinger, OL/DL Ethan Dunsey, RB/LB Ryan Feth, Hansen, Konick, Krawczyk, TE/DL Chase Lautner, Lieberum, Miller, Palmer, Pugh, Reinhart, Sella, Trainor, VanBibber and Zandier are seniors. All 16 plan to attend college.

Lautner, who shares the same birthday as Lieberum, stepped in at tight end for Konick in the postseason.

Feth summed up not just the 2020 season but also the relevance of playing football at TJ.

“It means you are dedicated, disciplined and not afraid of hard work,” he said.

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