Thomas Jefferson defends title, captures 5th PIAA football championship

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Saturday, November 28, 2020 | 6:27 PM


HERSHEY — Style points aren’t important to Thomas Jefferson’s football team, or else the Jaguars coaching staff wouldn’t be wearing shorts in 40-degree weather.

Saturday’s game wasn’t always pretty, but Thomas Jefferson defended its PIAA title with a 21-14 victory over Jersey Shore in the Class 4A championship in Hershey.

The Jaguars never trailed and seemed in control throughout behind a stifling defense that held Jersey Shore to minus-66 rushing yards with seven sacks. But TJ couldn’t put the game away until the clock hit zeroes.

“Obviously, you want to come and play well, but in the long run it doesn’t say the score on the trophy,” TJ coach Bill Cherpak said. “It doesn’t say how you got it.”

But in a way, this was a fitting end for a season where nothing came easy.

Jersey Shore scored with 34 seconds left and then recovered an onside kick, but its final drive stalled 21 yards from the end zone as time expired.

“Last year, we killed everyone,” TJ senior Preston Zandier said. “This year, we had to fight every single play to get back.”

With 4 seconds left, TJ’s Rex Miller narrowly knocked a third-down pass away from Jersey Shore receiver Dalton Dugan at the goal line. On fourth down, TJ’s defense swarmed quarterback Branden Wheary, causing his errant pass to flutter to the turf as time ran out.

TJ had 13 tackles for a loss and sacked Wheary seven times. Jordan Mayer and Nick Bryan each sacked him twice.

“We gave it our all, but we couldn’t quite get into some of our pass rhythm today,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said. “Their defensive front and their linebackers cause a little more pressure than we wanted.”

If Jersey Shore (10-1) had scored a last-second touchdown, Gravish had already decided to go for two, he said. But the District 4 champion making its state championship debut never got the chance.

“We beat a lot of teams by a lot of points last year,” said Miller, who stopped the third-down pass. “This year we didn’t have those same types of wins. We had to play a full four quarters.”

The PIAA title was the fifth for Thomas Jefferson (10-1), which became the first WPIAL team with five. The Jaguars previously won state titles in 2004, ’07, ’08 and ’19, all with Cherpak as coach.

This was maybe the most unlikely of the five. The record book will list back-to-back titles, but only a handful of starters were a part of both championships.

“People say, ‘Was this unexpected? I say I felt more like it was ‘unlikely’ almost,” Cherpak said. “With so many new kids and new starters — and losing the group we had — this was such a different team.

“We’re winning games in overtime, we’re winning games like this, whereas last year we’re mercy ruling everybody. It’s a different team but they’re resilient. They just found a way to win.”

TJ’s Conner Murga led the offense with 114 rushing yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Written on Murga’s shoes was the jersey number of former teammate Jeno Moretti, a Jefferson Hills teen who’s missing.

Zandier and DeRon VanBibber also scored for the Jaguars, who led 21-7 with less than 6 minutes left. The lead had been only seven points before VanBibber scored on a 4-yard run in the fourth quarter.

“I said we have to put them away. We have to score,” Cherpak said. “They’re so scrappy and they fought so hard that we knew they had the capability.”

Thomas Jefferson led 14-0 at halftime after a 3-yard touchdown run by Murga in the first quarter and a 28-yard touchdown pass from Jake Pugh to Zandier in the second.

Pugh completed 13 of 29 passes for 179 yards and one touchdown.

Jersey Shore had only 11 yards from scrimmage in the first half, but its rally started in the third quarter with a 51-yard interception return touchdown. Dugan picked off Pugh’s screen pass and raced along the sideline.

Jersey Shore scored its only offense touchdown on a 1-yard pass from Wheary to Owen Anderson with 34 seconds left, capping a nine-play, 80-yard drive.

When Jersey Shore recovered the onside kick, TJ’s defense suddenly needed to make one last stop.

“These are the games I love to be a part of,” Murga said. “Games like this are what I live for. I don’t like blowing teams out. I get bored. Games like this bring out the love of football.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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