Thomas Jefferson rallies past Plum to return to Class 4A championship game

Friday, November 6, 2020 | 10:42 PM

Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak breathed a sigh of relief in the minutes after Friday’s 20-17 home victory over Plum in a WPIAL Class 4A semifinal.

The Jaguars rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit and held the Mustangs off the scoreboard in the second half.

“This time of the year, you have to find a way to win,” Cherpak said. “We talked about how any play can be the play in a close game like this one was. You have to play like that, and we did in the second half.”

Trailing by 3, Plum had one final possession near midfield with 3 minutes, 29 second left. On second-and-7, a fumble occurred as Mustangs quarterback Ryan Hubner attempted to hand the ball off to running back Eryck Moore, and Thomas Jefferson recovered.

The Jaguars ran five running plays to drain the final couple of minutes from the clock and seal the win.

“Man, that was one hell of a game,” Cherpak said. “That’s the best team we played all year. They came to play. Their kids are as tough as nails.”

Thomas Jefferson now turns its attention to Aliquippa and the opportunity to win its second straight WPIAL championship, its fifth in six years and ninth overall since 2004. The Quips won Friday’s other Class 4A semifinal, 33-25, over Belle Vernon.

The Class 4A title game is set for 1 p.m. next Saturday at North Allegheny.

“That’s the goal and expectation of this team every year, getting to the championship game,” Cherpak said. “Even though we lost so many great players from last year, these kids knew what they needed to do. They’ve found different ways to get it done and keep going.”

The only score in the second half was the game winner. Jaguars quarterback Jake Pugh hit wideout Ian Hansen in stride on a slant, and Hansen did the rest as he raced 36 yards for the touchdown with 1:13 left in third quarter.

“I kind of knew that call was coming because that is usually a good play for us,” Pugh said. “As soon as I got the ball to Ian, he was going to make a play. I looked at him before the play and said, ‘You’re scoring.’ No. 7 (Max Matolcsy) is very athletic, and he tried to jump it, but Ian cut right in front of him and made a great play. He’s just so fast.”

Hansen finished with five catches for 74 yards.

Moore, a sophomore, led Plum with 127 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. He finished the season with 848 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Plum, which sought its first WPIAL championship-game appearance since 1983, caps a record-setting 2020 season at 8-1.

“I am so proud of these kids, the way they played all season and represented the school and the community, Plum coach Matt Morgan said. “With dealing with all the covid stuff and working out on their own to coming together with goals in mind for a great season, to stand with me and the coaches in a WPIAL semifinal game, I couldn’t be more proud to be their coach.”

Morgan did express some frustration after the game with a couple of calls and non-calls from the officials. The Plum sideline reacted adversely to what they felt was pass interference on a long pass from Hubner down to the TJ 13 on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Plum ended up punting from midfield.

Thomas Jefferson got off to a good start on its first drive. The Jaguars took the opening kickoff and moved 80 yards in 11 plays. DeRon VanBibber carried the ball seven times for 24 yards on the drive.

Isaac Eckley finished it off with a 16-yard run to the end zone. The Andrew Graham point-after made it 7-0 with 6:29 left in the opening quarter.

Plum responded a little over two minutes later as Matolcsy hauled in a 16-yard pass from Hubner. Reed Martin booted the PAT to knot the game at 7.

The Mustangs defense then turned up the heat with back-to-back turnovers – an interception by Hubner and a combination sack and fumble recovery by Kaden Thomas and Jordan Major.

Plum converted the takeaways into 10 points. Martin kicked a 32-yard field goal with 1:51 left in the first, and Moore scored on a 6-yard run early in the second as the Mustangs opened a 17-7 advantage.

TJ closed the gap late in the half as Pugh capped a five-play, 50-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge with 1:36 on the clock. The PAT kick was missed, and Plum took a four-point lead into the break.

Conner Murga, Thomas Jefferson’s leading rusher, paced the running attack with 114 yards on 20 carries. VanBibber added 16 carries for 51 yards, and Pugh completed 7-of-14 passes for 92 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Hubner finished 8 of 16 for 90 yards, and Matolcsy caught five passes for 64 yards for Plum.

“Plum’s skill players are so unbelievable,” Cherpak said. “We knew we were going to have our hands full. Whenever we were able stop them from running the ball, that created some problems for them because their run sets everything up.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at or via Twitter .

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