Trib HSSN Team of the Week: Thomas Jefferson
Monday, November 23, 2020 | 5:57 PM
Talk about a 180-degree swing.
A week after playing in an instant classic, a nail-biting overtime victory over Aliquippa in the WPIAL 4A championship game, Thomas Jefferson earned a berth in the PIAA title game with the total domination of Oil City in the state semifinals.
“I wasn’t sure what the score would be, but I felt that if we played a complete game without turnovers or penalties, we would control the game, and that’s what we did,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said.
The Jaguars jumped out to a 28-point lead over the District 10 champs after one quarter and extended the lead to 49-0 by halftime.
“We wanted to jump on them early and get a lead,” Cherpak said. “Their offense isn’t designed to come from behind. We felt that we could control the line of scrimmage and run the ball and get some big plays in the pass game. They were playing soft coverage, and our receivers can make a lot of plays when they get the ball. The offensive line controlled the game, and we were able to run the ball as well.”
Leading the way for TJ was junior running back Connor Murga. He rushed for 144 yards and scored three touchdowns on a 40-yard sprint and a pair of 2-yard dives.
“Conner is a downhill runner,” Cherpak said. “He runs hard, and when he gets an opening, he hits it quick and is tough to bring down. He and DeRon (VanBibber) complement each other in the backfield, and the offensive line has done a great job all year of giving them room to run.”
The line has also done a great job protecting senior quarterback Jake Pugh. On Friday, he was 7 of 10 for 179 yards and threw three touchdowns passes to senior wide receiver Preston Zandier.
For the season, Pugh has thrown for 1,706 yards and 24 touchdowns.
“Jake has been amazing all season,” Cherpak said. “He has been working for this moment for the past four years and has been great. No moment is too big for him. He is a leader and role model for all our younger kids.”
The whitewash of the Oilers was the fourth shutout of the season for Thomas Jefferson. Cherpak believes that unit doesn’t get enough credit
“Our defense has played really well all season,” he said. “Belle Vernon, Aliquippa and Plum were three of the top scoring teams in 4A, and our defense played well in all three games. Coach Jack Giran has been our defensive coordinator, and he does a great job setting up our defensive schemes. He has seen just about every possible thing an offensive team can do in his 40 years of coaching, so our defense is always well prepared.”
Cherpak has also seen a lot. He is not only the record-setting coach at Thomas Jefferson, he is the district athletic director as well, and he says what they usually do for Hershey will change in this unique season.
“We will depart for Hershey on Saturday morning and return after the game,” he said. “We would normally stay overnight in Hershey prior to the game, but with the current covid situation, it is just not practical to do so.”
Before they play for another state crown, they will celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday. Does the turkey taste better when you are still playing football?
“There is nothing better than having practice on Thanksgiving,” Cherpak said. “We have a long-standing tradition when we practice on Thanksgiving. It is throwback jersey day. Each player can wear their favorite college or professional team jersey for practice. We award prizes for the best jerseys. Even many of the coaches get involved and wear their college jersey.”
Now the only thing separating Thomas Jefferson from a WPIAL-record fifth PIAA football championship is undefeated District 4 champion Jersey Shore.
“Jersey Shore is very aggressive on defense,” Cherpak said. “Their defensive line is a bit undersized, but they are quick off the ball and they blitz a lot with the linebackers. Offensively, they are multi-dimensional. They throw a bit more than most teams we have played, but they also have a strong running game. It will be a big challenge for our defense.
“We will need to be strong in all three phases of the game. If we can do that, we are tough to beat.”
2020 HSSN Team of the Week
Week 10 – Jeannette Jayhawks
Week 9 – Central Catholic Vikings
Week 8 – Penn-Trafford Warriors
Week 7 – McKeesport Tigers
Week 6 – Elizabeth Forward Warriors
Week 5 – Aliquippa Quips
Week 4 – Serra Catholic Eagles
Week 3 – Avella Eagles
Week 2 – Peters Township Indians
Week 1 – Chartiers Valley Colts
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