Thomas Jefferson’s McClain Flinn shows flair for dramatic

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Saturday, November 28, 2020 | 11:01 AM


It was an emotionally charged atmosphere at North Allegheny.

Thomas Jefferson squeaked past Aliquippa, 35-28, in a WPIAL Class 4A overtime thriller Nov. 14.

The Jaguars built on their championship culture with the 10th WPIAL championship in school history.

The overtime period belonged to junior McClain Flinn, a 6-foot-1, 182-pound wide receiver/defensive back.

Flinn’s sensational third-down interception in the end zone clinched the title for the Jaguars. The athletic Flinn also caught a 20-yard touchdown pass with 6:17 left in the third quarter, giving TJ its first lead of the day.

Both the TD reception and interception were his firsts for the season.

“I love this team, and we played great, but we’re always looking to get better,” Flinn said. “By far, yes, this was my best game. Without my coaches’ guidance and my teammates, I wouldn’t have had such a successful game. I’m proud to have such great leaders around me guiding me since my freshman year.”

Senior QB Jake Pugh hit on 12 of 25 passes for 216 yards and two TDs against Aliquippa. He also scored on two QB sneaks.

Against WPIAL opponents this season, Pugh passed for 1,525 yards and 21 touchdowns, averaging close to 170 yards per game.

“I am super proud of the way our team battled,” Pugh said. “That game was a roller coaster of emotions, and we kept battling. They were a really good team and made it challenging for us, but our guys fought until the very end. We had some people step up big-time and made some huge plays when we needed them most.

“It probably was the most exciting game I have ever been a part of.”

DeRon Van Bibber, a senior RB/DB who has battled injuries the past two years, ran for 67 yards and one score on 17 carries. Against WPIAL competition this year, Van Bibber accounted for 564 yards and four touchdowns.

“That game was incredible; they came to play,” VanBibber said. “We still had a lot of mistakes. We turned the ball over a couple times, and they capitalized on that. But we fought until the end . It was a great all-around effort. I couldn’t be more proud of our team.

“I told McClain that he needed to have a big impact in this game, and boy did he. He made some great plays.”

VanBibber and junior RB/DE Conner Murga (75-569, 10 TDs) clicked for 1,133 yards and 14 scores between them on the ground through nine games.

The Jaguars, the No. 2 seed in Class 4A, finished with 3,243 yards and 47 TDs on 456 carries against WPIAL opponents, as seniors Nick Trainor (C), Alby Breisinger (G) and Jake Krawczyk (G) and junior tackles Owen Myer and Nick Bryan provided the bulk of the blocking on offense.

“It was a very gutty game,” Breisinger said. “Offense, defense and special teams were all extremely important. It was physical from start to finish. The key to winning was being physical. Our physicality combined with a great game plan allowed us to beat a good football team.”

No. 1 Aliquippa ended up 9-1. The Quips averaged 43.3 ppg and surrendered 14.2 ppg.

“They had big linemen on both sides of the ball,” VanBibber said. “They had very athletic receivers and two good backs. Their quarterback has a good arm and runs well, too.”

TJ senior WR/LB Preston Zandier said the WPIAL championship game had a surreal finish for him.

“In my whole entire life, I’ve never experienced anything like that game,” he said. “The back and forth of the game and winning in OT, I just didn’t expect that. When McClain picked it off to win it, I went into shock for a couple seconds then went absolutely crazy.”

Zandier, a Youngstown State recruit, caught three passes for 113 yards against the Quips, including a 42-yard TD grab late in the first quarter.

Another key play in the contest was delivered by senior WR/DB Ian Hansen, who returned a third-quarter kickoff 55 yards to dramatically change field position for both teams.

“This is a game I will never forget,” Hansen said. “I couldn’t be more proud and excited for our team to make history. The game was a battle, and we all knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We had people step up when we needed a big play.”

Zandier (37-562, 8 TDs) and Hansen (32-583, 7 TDs), who missed a few games with injuries, proved to be a dynamic receiving tandem, combining for 1,145 yards and 15 touchdowns on 69 receptions.

Hansen said the Jags’ resilience and poise provided to be the difference in the end after the Quips had rallied from a 28-14 deficit with 6:41 remaining.

“It just proves you can never let up on any team,” Hansen said.

TJ’s catalyst on defense against Aliquippa and this season was Isaac Eckley, a rock-solid junior FB/LB whose motor doesn’t stop. Eckley recorded 18 tackles against the Quips, including eight unassisted stops.

And he received plenty of defensive help from the likes of sophomore TE/DL Jordan Mayer, Zandier, Hansen, VanBibber, Murga, Bryan, Flinn, senior WR/DB Rex Miller and senior TE/LB Jack Konick, who suffered a torn ACL late in the season.

The defensive line was anchored by senior Seth Lieberum and Bryan at tackle, with Mayer and Murga at end.

Zandier, Hansen, Trainor and Krawczyk were the only returning starters in 2020 for TJ, which routed District 10 champ Oil City, 62-0, in the PIAA semifinal round Nov. 10.

Through 10 contests, the TJ gridders (9-1) averaged 41.6 ppg and allowed 10.6 ppg.

“Our team has played with a ton of heart and that allowed us to be extremely successful even though we lost so many talented players from last year,” Breisinger said. “TJ football is a family with a great tradition. This year we just wanted to continue the (championship) tradition.”

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