Thomas Jefferson preps for PIAA semifinal battle with Oil City

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Thursday, November 19, 2020 | 10:22 PM


Bill Cherpak doesn’t often have to worry about his players moving on from a big win and switching their focus to the next task at hand.

Thomas Jefferson celebrated capturing its second consecutive WPIAL championship and 10th overall with a thrilling 35-28 overtime win over Aliquippa on Saturday.

And when it came time to return to practice Monday, Oil City was the center of attention for Cherpak and Co.

“Monday at practice was just another Monday practice; there was no celebrating or talking about a WPIAL championship,” Cherpak said. “They just went back to work and focused on what we have to do next.”

Now, with another WPIAL title in its possession, TJ’s focus is solely on its quest for yet another state championship.

The Jaguars will battle for a spot in the PIAA Class 4A title game when they meet the Oilers in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday at Thomas Jefferson High School Stadium.

“For them, it’s really just business as usual,” said Cherpak, who became the first coach to win nine WPIAL titles last weekend. “They’re used to it and they never get too high or too low. They just focus on what’s in front of them.”

Oil City (12-0), the champion of District 10, enters the state semis averaging more than 50 points per game.

The Oilers, who have state playoff wins over Juniata and Upper Moreland under their belt, are similar to the Jaguars (8-1) in the sense that both teams like to run the football. Oil City features four running backs on its roster with at least 40-plus carries and 200-plus yards.

Senior Cam Russell is the team’s leading rusher with 1,483 yards and 20 touchdowns. He averaged 185 yards per game and rushed for 100-plus yards eight times.

Sean Stack, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound senior, has rushed for 807 yards and 13 scores, while senior quarterback Holden Stahl has 268 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Sophomore Isaiah Aeschbacher has proven capable of being a threat in the backfield as well, compiling 349 yards and four TDs.

“They like to run the ball and they have a big offensive line that likes to control the line of scrimmage. It’s similar to what we do,” Cherpak said. “It’s going to be a battle between two similarly matched teams. It’s going to be a fight, that’s for sure.”

One question mark surrounding Oil City is whether Russell will be available for the matchup. He’s missed the last two games with a wrist injury and is questionable.

“Their backups are pretty good, too, so they still do the same types of things,” Cherpak said. “It’s really not a big deal for us if he plays or doesn’t play.”

The Oilers have attempted just 61 passes all season, but if the team has to resort to the passing attack, they can make things happen.

Stahl has completed 63% of his passes for 1,143 yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s thrown just one interception and averages 114 passing yards per game.

“They don’t throw a lot, but when they do, it’s substantial for big gains, so we have to control that,” Cherpak said.

For the Jaguars to come away with a win and advance to their second straight state title game, there are two simple things that must be done.

“No turnovers and limit penalties,” Cherpak said. “Those two things have killed us and we’ve been able to overcome it so far, but sooner or later, it bites you. We have to limit mistakes and I think we’ll be in good shape.”

As for TJ’s offense, it’s still a high-powered unit that averages just over 39 points per game.

The Jaguars’ ground attack is led by the duo of junior Conner Murga and senior DeRon VanBibber. Murga leads the team with 569 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. VanBibber has rushed for 409 yards and a pair of scores. Eighteen players have at least a carry for TJ, a team that has totaled more than 1,600 yards on the ground.

The passing attack has proven to be a nice complement to the running game as senior Jake Pugh has led the way. In his first season as the starter under center, Pugh has thrown for more than 1,500 yards and 21 touchdowns. He had four total touchdowns — two through the air and two on the ground — in last week’s win over Aliquippa.

Pugh has plenty of weapons in the passing game, including Youngstown State recruit Preston Zandier, a senior who leads the team with 37 receptions. He has 562 yards and seven touchdowns.

While junior McClain Flinn and sophomore Jordan Mayer made their presence felt in the passing game last week, the postseason return of senior Ian Hansen has been even more pivotal.

Despite missing a few games because of ankle injuries, Hansen still leads TJ with 583 receiving yards. He’s tied with Zandier for the team lead with seven TD grabs.

“When he’s not in there, it just makes it more difficult for everybody else,” Cherpak said. “Whether you’re running the ball or throwing the ball, if you don’t have your playmakers in there, it changes it for everybody. Opposing teams can focus more on Preston and it makes it more difficult for us to throw. It’s a huge advantage to have another playmaker like Ian in there.”

The winner of Friday’s game between TJ and Oil City will advance to the state championship game to face the winner of Lampeter-Strasburg and Jersey Shore next weekend in Hershey.

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