Successful Thomas Jefferson football season not without its hiccups
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.”
Tags: Thomas Jefferson
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