Thomas Jefferson makes itself at home at Heinz Field

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Friday, November 22, 2019 | 6:02 PM


Heinz Field has become a second home for the Thomas Jefferson football program.

The Jaguars have advanced to the WPIAL finals five years in a row and 11 times in Bill Cherpak’s legendary 25-year coaching career.

The top-seeded TJ gridders, who own a remarkable 85-1 record with 34 shutouts since 2004 at TJ Stadium, improved to 8-3 on the North Shore by storming past No. 3 Belle Vernon, 41-7, on Nov. 16 in the WPIAL Class 4A championship game.

“It was a total team effort,” Cherpak said. “The defense did a great job of shutting down the Belle Vernon offense which had a lot of weapons and big-play threats. Our offensive and defensive lines controlled the line of scrimmage. Dylan (Mallozzi) ran the ball really well, and Shane (Stump) and the receivers did a great job of making big plays in the passing game. I also thought our coaching staff did a great job of preparing the kids for anything Belle Vernon could throw at us.

“The season has been great. The kids work hard and have made this one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve ever had.”

The Jaguars improved to 13-0 heading into the state playoffs. BV dropped to 10-2 and saw its nine-game winning streak end.

“I think we started fast and never looked back,” said Mallozzi, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior who rushed for 178 yards and four touchdowns against BV. “We were dominant on offense, defense and special teams. The coaching staff has done a great job all year preparing for every defensive and offensive scenario a team can throw at us, and I think that’s the reason for our defense being as successful as it is.”

Mallozzi scored on runs of 12, 4, 16 and 39 yards, boosting his season totals to 1,382 yards and 22 touchdowns on 149 carries.

The Jaguars’ offensive line was powered by senior tackles Michael Huber and Mac Duda, junior tackle Jacob Krawczyk, senior guard Logan Danielson, junior center Nicholas Trainor, along with senior tight end James Martinis and fullback Nathan Werderber in the mix.

“Offensively, I can’t obviously give enough credit to the whole line,” Mallozzi said. “They’re the best line in the WPIAL, and with (Martinis and Werderber) helping to block, they proved just how dominating we can be. Our line played great, opening up holes, and (Werderber) did a great job leading me through the holes.

“We can throw or we can run, so I just can’t give enough credit to the line for making my job so easy.”

During Cherpak’s storied tenure, the Jaguars have won WPIAL titles in 2019, 2015-17, 2006-08 and 2004, while finishing as runners-up in 2018, 2005 and 2003.

TJ is 7-1 in its last eight trips to Heinz, defeating Belle Vernon this year, Montour (27-0) in 2017, New Castle (42-0) in 2016, Central Valley (20-7) in 2015, Blackhawk (34-14) in 2008, Montour (34-0) in 2007 and Blackhawk (34-15) in 2006. The Jaguars lost to South Fayette, 31-24, in 2018.

“I’m beyond proud of my team coming back this season after losing last year in the championship game,” Martinis said. “Not too many teams get the opportunity to come back the next year. We came out strong and did what we needed to do. We’ve had a great season so far and are in the position we wanted to be in.”

TJ has won nine district titles, including eight by Cherpak, tying him with former West Allegheny and current Mt. Lebanon coach Bob Palko for the most ever.

Cherpak is TJ’s all-time winningest football coach with a 271-46 record. He reeled in four WPIAL titles (2004, 2006-08) in five years, along with three state crowns (2004, 2007-08), then added four more WPIAL crowns in the past five seasons.

Belle Vernon made its first WPIAL championship appearance since 1999 at Three Rivers Stadium.

TJ defeated the Leopards, 34-7, in a Week 2 game that was tied 7-7 at halftime. BV rallied past No. 2 South Fayette, 41-30, in the semifinal round.

TJ stymied No. 4 Blackhawk, 49-0, in the semifinals. Senior wide receiver Dan Deabner scored four times, three on passes from senior quarterback Shane Stump and once on a 49-yard punt return.

The Jaguars held WPIAL opponents to one score or less 12 times this season.

In three WPIAL playoff games, Mallozzi rambled for 428 yards and seven touchdowns on 61 attempts.

Stump accounted for 627 yards and 10 scores. He hit on 28 of 49 passes for 494 yards and six TDs. He also ran for 133 yards and four scores on 17 carries.

Stump talked about the Jaguars’ conference and postseason rivalry with Belle Vernon.

“They have been one of the best teams we’ve played in the past few years,” Stump said. “With that being said, I think the emotion that comes with playing Belle Vernon every year makes it the big rivalry it has become. We all know each other from playing one another for so long and that really creates a lot of friction once we collide. It always allows for a great atmosphere to play in.”

Stump’s thoughts on TJ’s performance at Heinz Field this year?

“I think the team as a whole played as a unit and executed the gameplan as well as it was drawn up,” he said. “I can’t stress enough the work that both the coaches and the team put into prep all week. Everyone was focused and it showed on the field. I’m proud of the all the guys and how everyone played, and I think we sent a message to the WPIAL about what kind of team we have here.

“In the second half, we wanted to control the ball and use the clock efficiently and limit their ability to make any big plays and swing momentum. We did a good job of that, except for the one touchdown drive, but overall we did what we needed to do.”

TJ held its three playoff foes to 314 total offensive yards, two touchdowns and 19 first downs on 129 total plays.

Seniors Bowen Dame and Danielson led the charge defensively in the WPIAL games.

Dame, a 6-1, 185-pound linebacker, was credited with 17 tackles, including 15 solo stops. Danielson, a 6-1, 265-pound lineman, had 16 tackles, including 12 solo hits.

The D&D duo was complemented by the likes of Werderber (14 tackles, 13 solo), junior LB Preston Zandier (eight solo, one interception), sophomore LB Isaac Eckley (nine solo) and Martinis (six solo) and junior CB Ian Hansen (two interceptions).

Stump, junior DE Jack Konick and Deabner also were integral on defense.

Deabner finished with 12 catches, 258 yards and four touchdowns on offense.

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