Thomas Jefferson football ends solid season with unusually short playoff run

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Saturday, December 4, 2021 | 11:01 AM


Heinz Field had become a second home for the Thomas Jefferson football team in recent years.

Not 2021.

The two-time defending WPIAL and state champion Jaguars lost Nov. 19 to rival Belle Vernon, 21-7, at West Mifflin in the WPIAL semifinal round.

TJ had won the past two and five of the last six WPIAL 4A crowns and had advanced to the finals — held annually at Heinz — six consecutive seasons.

The Jaguars finished with an 8-3 record and were 4-2 in the Big Eight Conference, good for third place behind BV and McKeesport.

“This season was obviously not the outcome we had hoped for,” coach Bill Cherpak said, “but overall the kids worked hard and had a successful season.”

One of the TJ team leaders was this year was senior Nick Bryan, a bruising 6-foot-3, 275-pound two-way lineman.

“We may not have won the WPIAL or states, but we are a good football team,” Bryan said, “and just because we didn’t win it all doesn’t mean to count us out, because I’ll bet on TJ football over everyone.

“We came out and showed the whole WPIAL we are still dominant with young athletes by just being very physical.”

Belle Vernon slipped past TJ, 28-21, in conference play, and is the first team in recent memory to defeat the Jaguars twice in one year.

Thomas Jefferson leads the all-time series with Belle Vernon, 37-22, and dominated in recent years, winning 20 of 24 against the Leopards.

TJ walloped Indiana, 41-0, and undefeated Hampton, 42-14, in the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs.

The Jaguars outscored the opposition by a 369-137 margin in 2021, averaging 33.5 ppg offensively and 12.5 ppg defensively — two of the top averages in 4A. The Jaguars posted three shutouts.

Over the past four seasons, senior team members at TJ won 45 of 50 games and were part of two WPIAL, two PIAA and three conference championships.

The 10 seniors on this year’s 69-player squad were Bryan, QB/DB Joe Lekse, WR/DB McClain Flinn, WR/LB Heath Mackulin, FB/LB Isaac Eckley, RB/LB Conner Murga, RB/DB Angelo Volomino, WR/LB Michael Inks, OL/DL Logan Timko and OL/DL Owen Myer.

Bryan, an all-state selection at offensive tackle in 2020, plans to continue his football career at Kent State as an elementary education major with a minor in history.

“I hope my career and success will rub off on some of the younger players,” he said, “and in a way teach them that hard work and determination can get you anywhere.”

Lekse accounted for 1,644 yards offensively this season and led the team in scoring with 20 touchdowns and a two-point conversion. He passed for 982 yards and 12 scores and ran for 662 yards and 19 scores.

Lekse completed 59 of 105 passes with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions in 11 games.

Elias Lippincott, a talented sophomore running back and linebacker who sat out the WPIAL semifinal with an ankle injury, led the squad in rushing with 854 yards and 13 TDs on 151 carries.

He was complemented in the backfield by Murga with 439 yard and five TDs on 61 carries, an average of 7.2 yards per attempt.

Murga ran for a team-high 821 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2020, giving him 1,260 yards and 17 scores on the ground over the past two seasons.

Lekse’s favorite target this fall was sophomore WR/DB Sean Sullivan, who finished with 31 receptions for 547 yards and six touchdowns. Sullivan averaged 17.6 yards per catch with a season-long reception of 73 yards.

Other pass-catchers included junior TE/DE Jordan Mayer, sophomore WR/DB Joe Mendyk, Flinn, Lippincott, Volomino, Murga and Eckley.

Mayer and Eckley paced TJ defensively with support from Flinn, junior LBs Dom Donatelli and John Janusek, Volomino, sophomore LB Kameron Eggerton, Bryan, junior DL Peyton Krueger, junior DB Ryan Lawry and Lekse, who grabbed a team-high four interceptions.

Five TJ players earned first-team all-conference plaudits, two on offense and three on defense.

Krueger, a junior guard, and Sullivan, a sophomore receiver, were offensive selections. Bryan, a senior lineman, Mayer, a junior lineman, and Eckley, a senior linebacker, were defensive selections.

The Jaguars have won 10 WPIAL football titles and five PIAA crowns in school history.

Cherpak has compiled a 292-50 career coaching record at TJ to rank among the leaders in WPIAL history.

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