Thomas Jefferson football A to Z: Another special season for Jaguars

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Sunday, December 6, 2020 | 10:15 AM


An anatomy of a state champion, or it takes a village to build a successful football program.

Thomas Jefferson (10-1) won its 10th WPIAL title in school history and fifth state crown in 2020. The Jaguars held off previously undefeated and District 4 winner Jersey Shore (10-1), 21-14, Nov. 28 in the PIAA Class 4A finals at Hersheypark Stadium.

What follows are some reasons behind the Jaguars’ championship 2020 season:

A — Assistant coaches: Anthony Battaglini, Zach Bonatesta, Frank Brettschneider, Zack DeCicco, Jon Drager, Jack Giran, Ryan Keebler, Mike Murray, Pat Oster, T.J. Srsic, Trevor Wildman.

B — Behind the scenes: Scott Breisinger and Steve Colditz film each game and put together a Hollywood-style highlight film that takes hundreds of hours of work. Mark Bartoletti is the voice of the Jaguars, Robert Kerr is stat man and Marcy Kurin is the team videographer.

C — Cherpak: Any championship run at TJ begins and ends with the coaching prowess of Bill Cherpak. He leads all area football coaches with nine WPIAL titles and five state crowns. His career record is 284-47, a spectacular .858 winning percentage.

“Everyone had a role to do this year and they did it,” Cherpak said. “Jake Pugh and Preston Zandier were the leaders of the team. The offensive line was great all year. We had several injuries along the way, but there was always someone to step in. It was a huge blow to the team when Jack Konick was lost for the season. He was a leader and one of our best players.

“I also have to thank the coaching staff. I appreciate all their hard work and flexibility to make this happen. It is a great staff that works well together but always challenge each other to get better.”

At the state finals, the Jaguars have defeated the likes of Manheim Central, 56-20, in 2004; Garnet Valley, 28-3, in 2007; Archbishop Wood, 34-7, in 2008; Dallas, 46-7, in 2019, and Jersey Shore in 2020. TJ has won the five times in Hershey by an average score of 37-10.

D — Defensive line: Seth Lieberum (6-foot-3, 228), Nick Bryan (6-3, 250) at tackle; Conner Murga (6-1, 178), Jordan Mayer (6-4, 227), Nick Florian (6-0, 247) at end.

The Jaguars allowed 10.9 ppg this season and posted four shutouts. They held eight opponents to less than 100 yards passing and six to less than 100 rushing yards.

E — Enthusiasm: The TJ cheerleaders and band members make each game a memorable experience from their sideline post, both pregame, during and at halftime.

F — Flinn: This spot’s reserved for McClain Flinn, and Flinn only. The junior WR/LB made one of the biggest plays of the season for the Jaguars, intercepting an Aliquippa pass in the end zone in overtime in the WPIAL finals.

It was Flinn’s first interception of the season and led TJ to a thrilling 35-28 victory against the Quips.

G — Goals: Conference, WPIAL, PIAA titles. Always.

H — Hansen: Ian Hansen developed into one of the leading receivers in the WPIAL, catching 42 passes for 785 yards and seven scores. The 5-7, 163-pound WR/DB averaged 18.7 yards per reception, and was voted first-team all-conference on offense and defense.

I — Isaac Eckley: TJ’s catalyst on defense was the hard-hitting Eckley, a rock-solid FB/LB who led the team in with 72 total tackles, including 10 against Jersey Shore.

J — Jaguar Nation: TJ Football Boosters, behind president Joanne Everley, maintain important functions within the TJ football program. Everley was helped out by volunteers Brian Konick and Katie Pugh this season, and her family members always pitch in when asked.

K — Konick: After performing at a high level at TE/DE most of the season, Jack Konick suffered a torn ACL late in the year. He was named first-team all-conference on defense.

L — Linebacking corps: Eckley (ILB), Zandier (ILB), Flinn (OLB), Aiden Palmer (OLB) — all tenacious tacklers.

M — Multifaceted special teams: Jack Sella (K), Andy Graham (K), Pugh (P), Mayer (LS). Sella booted 35 PAT kicks and one field goal; Graham had 18 PATs with one field goal.

“One other part of our success was our kicking game,” Cherpak said. “Jack Sella was our extra point and field goal kicker. Andy Graham did all of the kickoffs. They are both TJ soccer players who were great additions to the team.”

N — Nitty-gritty: Offense, defense, special teams at TJ all take care of the nitty-gritty, both at practice and in the games.

O — Offensive line: Nick Trainor (6-0, 200) at center; Jake Krawczyk (6-4, 265), Alby Breisinger (6-2, 250) at guard; Owen Myer (6-0, 250), Bryan (6-3, 250) at tackle; Konick (6-0, 185), Chase Lautner (5-11, 188) at tight end. Bryan was selected first-team all-conference on offense.

Behind the push of the O-line, the Jaguars averaged close to 270 total yards per game, scored 58 touchdowns and averaged 39.7 ppg.

“This year was all about overcoming adversity,” Breisinger said. “Aside from dealing with the uncertainty caused by corona, we played in so many close games that we could have lost, yet we always found a way to win.

“My goal ever since I played youth football was to win a state championship. The fact that I was able to do that twice in my career is surreal. As a whole, TJ football is all about carrying on tradition and I can genuinely say I was able to do that in my time as a Jaguar. Every player on this team is like a brother to me and the family-like bond that is created by TJ football is unlike anything else.”

P — Photographer: Veteran photography wizard Ken Eber has been a welcomed part of the TJ football program, annually snapping more than 10’s of thousands photos.

Q — Quarterback play: Pugh quickly embraced his leadership role for the Jaguars, and ended up passing for 1,881 yards and 25 touchdowns in 11 games. He passed for 216 yards and two touchdowns against Aliquippa (and scored twice on QB plunges), and 175 yards and one TD against Jersey Shore. He averaged 171 yards passing per game.

R — Receiving corps: Zandier, Hansen, Rex Miller, Shultz Reinhart. But no less than 14 players caught passes for the Jaguars, who racked up 1,991 yards and 28 touchdowns through the air.

S — Secondary: DeRon VanBibber (CB), Miller (CB), Hansen (S), Joe Lekse (S), Flinn (DB), Reinhart (DB).

The play of the game against Jersey Shore was delivered by Miller, who kept his focus and slipped in to knock a third-down pass away from Jersey Shore receiver Dalton Dugan at the goal line with 4 seconds left.

“Rex made one of the plays of the year by breaking up that touchdown pass,” Cherpak said.

T — Trainor: Nick Trainor was a second-year starter at center and one of the team’s unsung players in 2020.

“I think this year we had a different type of team than last year,” Trainor said. “Last year, we had so many experienced players and this year we had many younger kids step up and fill the spots. We played our hearts out and left everything on the field.

“I’m honestly so proud of what we accomplished this year.

U — Upperclassmen: TJ’s senior class consists of Breisinger (OL/DL), Ethan Dunsey (OL/DL), Ryan Feth (FB/LB), Hansen (WR/DB), Konick (TE/DE), Krawczyk (OL/DL), Lautner (TE/DL), Lieberum (OL/DL), Miller (WR/DB), Palmer (WR/LB), Pugh (QB/DB), Reinhart (WR/DB), Sella (K), Trainor (OL/DL), VanBibber (RB/DB), Zandier (WR/LB).

V — VanBibber: A flashy speedster, DeRon VanBibber (139-648 yards, 6 TDs) and his backfield teammate Murga (111-821 yards, 12 TDs) combined for 1,469 yards and 18 touchdowns in the rushing department.

“This year, our team has proven to be great fighters,” VanBibber said. “We used our hearts and fought until the end. My TJ football career has taught me the importance of coming together as brothers no matter what the circumstance. It’s a great day to be a Jaguar.”

Murga will be back next season as a senior.

W — Winning tradition: During Cherpak’s legendary coaching career, the Jaguars are 284-47, a winning percentage of .858. Since Cherpak’s first year as coach in 1995, TJ has had two undefeated seasons, 11 with one loss and five with two losses.

“TJ football is all about tradition and continuing that tradition,” Trainor said. “As a senior, you have to pass down what you learned to the younger kids.”

X — X-factor: The Jaguars have it.

Y — Youthfulness: There are 18 sophomores and 24 freshmen on the 71-player varsity roster, meaning there will be additional talent available in the not-too-distant future to maintain the Jaguars’ winning tradition.

Z — Zandier: Team leader on offense and defense, Preston Zandier caught 47 passes for 718 yards and 12 scores this season, and 76 for 1,246 yards and 16 TDs for his career. He also logged 34 tackles this season, including eight against Jersey Shore. Zandier is a Youngstown State recruit.

He was named first-team all-conference on offense and defense.

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