Thomas Jefferson sees ‘mirror image’ in state championship opponent Dallas

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019 | 4:00 PM


Instead of heading home after last week’s semifinal win, Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak and a few assistants drove two hours from Hollidaysburg to Danville to watch Dallas win the other state semifinal.

The road trip let them scout an opponent from the other side of the state, but the team they watched seemed familiar: Talented linemen, a physical defense and a power-running game that still uses a fullback.

“It was like a mirror image,” Cherpak said. “We’re similar in a lot of ways.”

And Cherpak wasn’t the only one to notice. When Dallas coach Rich Mannello watched Thomas Jefferson, he reached the same conclusion.

“I used the exact same words,” Mannello said. “It’s a mirror image.”

WPIAL champion Thomas Jefferson faces District 2 champion Dallas in the PIAA Class 4A final at 7 p.m. Thursday at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey. In an era of five wide receivers and spread offenses, these teams could be called throwbacks on both sides of the ball.

Here’s another similarity: Both teams are 15-0.

“It’s going to be old school,” said Cherpak, who predicted a lot of running and a fast-moving clock. “There’s no doubt it’s going to be a physical game. … I think our kids are more comfortable (with this style) than the spreads and the stuff that we usually face.”

Cherpak said Dallas is “by far” the most physical team they’ve played this season. Both offenses have run-pass balance and use multiple formations. But each team seems to take pride in playing power football with a fullback, tailback and a strong offensive line.

“Everybody wants to go east and west,” Mannello said, “but the last time I checked, the quickest way (to the end zone) is straight ahead.”

As a team, Dallas has rushed for more than 4,000 yards led by running back Lenny Kelley. The 5-10, 175-pound senior has 2,623 yards and 41 touchdowns on 292 carries. He averages 175 yards per game, 9 yards per carry and has topped 100 yards in all 15 games this season.

The Mountaineers, like the Jaguars, run up the middle and off tackle.

In last week’s 56-28 victory over Jersey Shore, Kelley carried 28 times for 269 yards and scored five touchdowns. It was the fifth time this season that Kelley topped 200 yards.

“He’s short, stocky and thick but he has some speed,” Cherpak said. “He hits the hole and goes forward. He’s running through some big, open spaces a lot of times.”

Disrupting that running game is key for Thomas Jefferson, which seeks its fourth state title overall and first since 2008. The Jaguars are 3-0 all-time in state championship appearances.

Dallas, near Wilkes-Barre, owns one state title. The Mountaineers defeated Washington, 31-7, in the 1993 Class 2A championship.

“We’re all the way on the other side of the state but we’re very well away of what a great program (Thomas Jefferson) is,” Mannello said.

Thomas Jefferson has 3,468 rushing yards led by senior Dylan Mallozzi, who has 1,705 yards and 25 touchdowns on 195 carries. Mallozzi had 168 yards and a touchdown in last week’s 44-2 win over Lampeter-Strasburg.

TJ quarterback Shane Stump has passed for 2,373 yards, 32 touchdowns and one interception. Stump also has rushed for 492 yards and nine scores. His top receivers are Daniel Deabner (47 catches, 1,053 yards) and Ian Hansen (32-689). Both widouts caught touchdowns last week.

“They’ve got great speed and obviously we’ve talked about the size,” Mannello said of Thomas Jefferson. “Those receivers are very good, the quarterback is excellent. It’s really a great program.”

Mannello is in his fifth season at Dallas.

Previously, he coached 19 seasons at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, an NCAA Division III program that he resurrected in 1991. The college had no football team for 30 years until he restarted the program and led it to the national playoffs in 2002.

He’s overseen a revival at Dallas, as well. This year’s 17-person senior class won two games as freshmen but improved to 7-4 in 2017 and 11-2 in 2018. This year, Dallas won the District 2 title for the first time since 1999.

“Nine of these kids started on Friday night as freshmen,” Mannello said. “We shoved them out there. It wasn’t a lot of fun but they stayed with it.”

Dallas quarterback Michael Starbuck (5-10, 185) has thrown for 1,813 yards and 23 touchdowns. The senior isn’t a runner like Stump, but has completed 111 of 179 throws with only seven interceptions.

Statistically, Thomas Jefferson has the edge defensively. The Jaguars have allowed only 4 points per game on average. Dallas has allowed 12.

“We have to get them in third-and-long situations,” Cherpak said, “and get them out of their comfort zone.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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