Thomas Jefferson’s Lekse looks to past for inspiration

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Sunday, March 27, 2022 | 11:01 AM


Joe Lekse, this year’s Breisinger Award winner, had his eye on the prize throughout his entire varsity career.

He explained.

“In my four years playing football at Thomas Jefferson, I aspired to be like each winner of the Breisinger Award,” said Leske, a senior quarterback/defensive back. “My freshman year, Gabe Dominick (TE/DE) won the award. He may not have been a star player, but he excelled in all the things you can’t see from the outside. He did everything he could to make our team successful by preparing the offense and defense for each game in practice. He gave 100 percent effort in every drill, conditioning exercise, and practice.”

The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Lekse continued.

“My sophomore year, Nate Werderber (FB/LB) won the award,” Lekse said. “He was a kid that thought about quitting after his sophomore year. Instead, he chose to work his tail off and gained a starting spot on offense and defense his junior year.

“He was a fearless fullback and linebacker and helped lead us to a state championship in 2019. He never took any reps off. He now serves in the United States Marine Corps.

“My junior year, Alby Breisinger (OL/DL) won the award. He was an offensive lineman and helped lead our team to another state championship in 2020. He was an excellent leader and a great friend.

“In the summer during covid lockdown, he would host team practices for the lineman to keep them in shape and on track for the upcoming season. He always put the team first and made players around him better.”

The Breisinger Award was established at TJ in 1979 and named after former Pleasant Hills police officer Albert Breisinger. It is presented annually to a senior gridder for his hard work, community involvement and academics.

It is not the team MVP. It goes to the one who best exemplifies the “character, courage, leadership and sacrifice demonstrated in the life and eternal spirit” of Albert Breisinger, whose high school football uniform number — 62 — is the only one retired at Thomas Jefferson.

Logan Burnsworth, in 2017, was the seventh lineman since 2012 to win the award, joining Jimbo Nassida (2016), Jake Maxwell (2015), Zack Reynolds (2014), Anthony Rash (2013), Garrett Pahanish (2013) and Pat Hall (2012).

Lekse is the first quarterback to receive the coveted honor since Dom Presto in 2011.

“Joe is an amazing young man,” TJ coach Bill Cherpak said. “He is everything the Breisinger Award stands for. He is a great leader and role model for all of the younger players in our program. He is a high honor roll student in school with a 4.2 GPA. He plays multiple sports. He is well liked and respected by the faculty and staff of the high school. He is a responsible and accountable young man with his priorities in the proper order.”

Lekse completed 59 of 105 passes for 982 yards and 12 touchdowns and three interceptions in 2021. The Jaguars averaged 33.5 points while allowing 12.5 ppg as Lekse led the team in scoring with 20 touchdowns and 122 points and accounted for 1,644 total offensive yards.

Lekse rushed for 662 yards and 19 TDs on 142 carries with a season-best run of 48 yards in the season opener against Gateway.

“I ran untouched for a touchdown right up the middle,” Lekse said.

Lekse finished with 18 tackles and a team-high four interceptions (118 yards in returns). He scored twice on interception returns, rambling 30 yards on the first defensive play of the game in Week 3 against Trinity and also 85 yards in Week 8 against West Mifflin.

Lekse’s top performance came against Hampton in the WPIAL quarterfinals, when he rushed for 114 yards and scored five times on 22 carries (5.2 ypc) and recorded an interception on defense.

He also had a huge game against Laurel Highlands in Week 5 of the regular season with 307 total offensive yards.

Lekse again accounted for five scores (three rushing, two passing) as he connected on nine of 13 passes for 205 yards and rushed for 102 yards on 12 carries (8.5 ypc).

“On the field, Joe was our rock,” Cherpak said. “He was consistent and reliable. He never missed a game and always seemed to make a play when we needed it most. Joe is in the final stages of being admitted to the Naval Academy. He will find out in early April. Joe is exactly what anyone would want their son to be like.”

The athletic Lekse played no less than three defensive positions in 2021.

“I was very flexible on defense this year,” he said. “I played free safety half the season and would rotate to outside linebacker/strong safety the other half of the time. It really all depended on our defensive gameplan and who we were facing.”

The Breisinger Award at TJ is given to one senior every year and chosen entirely by the players on the team. The coaches are not involved. It is awarded to a significant player who demonstrates leadership on and off the field, exhibits integrity and is mentally tough. This is the player one would choose to represent TJ Football.

“It is an amazing feeling to win this award, knowing my teammates voted for me and looked up to me in some way,” Lekse said. “I would not be where I am today without their constant support. They had my back during the season and always believed in me.”

Lekse started out as a three-sport athlete at TJ but focused on football and basketball (and giving up baseball) after suffering a calf injury in the last week of basketball practice during his sophomore season. He ended up with four varsity letters including three in football.

He is a two-year member of the National Honor Society and Big Jag Little Cub Club. He also is a member of the Outdoors Club at TJ.

But the biggest news for Lekse is that he is in the final stage of his application process for the U.S. Naval Academy.

“I received a nomination from Congressman Mike Doyle in January and am now waiting for an appointment from USNA,” Lekse said. “My goal is to become a Navy Seal.

“In case I do not get accepted into the Naval Academy, I have applied to a list of eight universities where I would choose to study economics.”

During Lekse’s four years, the Jaguars won two WPIAL and two PIAA championships, finished as a WPIAL runner-up once and a WPIAL semifinalist once.

TJ won 45 of 50 games and three conference championships. The Jaguars were 30-3 during the past four regular seasons and 15-2 in the playoffs.

“Coming from a program that expects winning and nothing less, it is easy to look back on our season and call it a failure,” Lekse said. “However, we did a lot of great things. We finished the season 8-3 and 5-0 at home. We started the season strong with big wins against Gateway and South Fayette and ended Hampton’s undefeated season in the playoffs. Our team was so young and certainly lacked experience with only a handful of players having any varsity experience.

“A lot of the sophomores that stepped up have the potential to be something special. I have faith in my teammates that they will bounce back next year and come out even stronger. Although it hurts to go out on a loss, especially after winning states two years in a row, I am happy with the season we had and the way I played in my final year of football.”

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