Thomas Jefferson peaks in time for playoffs, gives coach Bill Cherpak his 300th win

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Sunday, November 20, 2022 | 11:01 AM


The list of awards and honors bestowed upon Thomas Jefferson football coach Bill Cherpak over the years is a long one.

Cherpak has won five state championships, nine WPIAL titles and 22 conference crowns. He has been named conference coach of the year eight times, AP Pennsylvania Class AAA Coach of the Year in 2004, ESPN RISE Eastern Division Coach of the Year in 2008 and was a Pittsburgh Steelers’ nominee for the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award twice (2016, 2019). He was inducted into the Robert “Tick” Cloherty/Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.

Now, add 300 career victories to that spectacular coaching resume.

Cherpak, in his 28th season as TJ’s field boss, and the third-seeded Jaguars sloshed past No. 11 Latrobe, 21-6, on Nov. 11 in the quarterfinals of the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs. With the rain-soaked win, Cherpak’s career record improved to 300-53.

“I think as I get older and reflect on things, the 300 wins will mean more to me than it does now,” Cherpak said. “We have always strived to be a program that was consistent year in and year out and the 300 wins is a byproduct of that consistency.”

The 55-year-old Cherpak is the fourth coach in WPIAL history with 300 career wins, joining Jim Render (406), Joe Hamilton (342) and George Novak (306).

Thomas Jefferson principal Pete Murphy presented Cherpak with a plaque and game ball commemorating his milestone victory immediately following the quarterfinal-round playoff game at TJ Stadium.

The TJ football team stood at a crossroads after taking two hard hits to the chin at the end of September, losing to Belle Vernon in a nonconference clash and Laurel Highlands in conference.

The Jaguars were 3-3 at midseason for the first time in recent history.

Their reaction?

TJ rolled past Trinity, Ringgold, Connellsville and McKeesport to finish in a three-way tie for first with McKeesport and Laurel Highlands in the Big Seven Conference. TJ was rewarded with a first-round bye for the playoffs.

“We had some struggles earlier in the season,” Cherpak said, “but this team has really come together and is playing well at the right time. Hopefully, we can keep it going. I always tell them it’s not about how you start but how you finish.”

Playing in the remnants of Hurricane Nicole, the Jaguars handcuffed the visiting Latrobe squad that was coming off its first playoff win since winning the WPIAL Class 3A title against Kiski Area in 1968.

The Jaguars have reached the WPIAL semifinal round 24 times in 25 years.

Offensively, TJ has been led by junior quarterback Brody Evans, who in the regular season completed 134 of 221 passes for 1,857 yards and 19 touchdowns.

“Brody has continued to get better and better each week of the season,” Cherpak said. “He has really grown as a quarterback and a leader on our offense.”

While the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Evans developed into the main catalyst for the Jaguars, he had two favorite targets in junior Sean Sullivan and senior Ryan Lawry.

Prior to the playoffs, Sullivan caught 43 passes for 827 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 19.2 yards per catch. Lawry added 32 receptions for 371 yards and three scores, or 12 yards per reception.

“Ryan and Sean have both been great. They make Brody’s job much easier by forcing the defense to defend both of them along with our tight end Jordan Mayer,” Cherpak said. “Ryan has been a team captain and leader all season. Sean is our big-play threat and has really stepped up the last few games.”

The Jaguars presented a solid one-two punch on the ground thanks to junior RBs Elias Lippincott and Aidan Whalen, who combined for 1,171 yards and 16 touchdowns on 239 carries.

Lippincott (6-2, 220) ran for 721 yards and 10 scores on 141 carries. He also reeled in 10 passes for 90 yards. Whalen (6-0, 170) tacked on 450 yards and six TDs on 98 carries.

The starters on the O-line are senior LT Peyton Kreuger, junior LG Michael Hutchison, senior C Nick Florian, sophomore RG Shephard Turk, senior RT Nathan Everley and the 6-5, 235-pound Mayer, a senior tight end and Wisconsin recruit.

“I think as a team we really improved as the season went on and it was just fixing the small details,” said Kreuger, who stands 6-2 and weighs 260.

The TJ running game accounted for 3,284 yards and 39 touchdowns heading into the WPIAL playoffs.

Lippincott and Sullivan, with 10 TDs apiece, were the team’s leading scorers through 10 contests. Sullivan’s total included one touchdown on a kickoff return.

Whalen tacked on seven TDs while Andrew Graham, a senior kicking specialist, added 40 PAT kicks and five field goals (55 points).

Graham had 10 touchbacks and averaged 37.3 yards per punt.

TJ’s defensive unit came together in the second half of the season. During the four-game winning streak, the Jaguars allowed only 20 points and blanked two opponents.

The starting unit on defense consisted of Mayer (DE), Lippincott (DE), Florian (DT), Kreuger (DT), sophomore Matt Martinis (LB), senior John Janusek (LB), junior Kam Eggerton (LB), junior Michael Banda (LB), Whalen (DB), Sullivan (DB), Lawry (DB) and junior Jason Salman (DB).

Through 10 games, Martinis and Mayer led the defense statistically with Martinis accounting for 48 tackles, including 39 solo, and one fumble recovery. Mayer added 40 tackles, two forced fumbles, six hurries, five sacks, one fumble recovery and one blocked punt.

Other top defensive players included Kreuger, Janusek, Eggerton, Florian, senior DB Bryce Heller, Lawry, Banda and Lippincott.

Sullivan had two interceptions while Janusek, Florian, Eggerton and Lawry pulled in one apiece.

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