WPIAL Class 4A football breakdown: Road to title goes through Thomas Jefferson

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Monday, September 7, 2020 | 9:01 PM


Thomas Jefferson began its 2019 season with a dominant victory over Canon-McMillan and ended it in Hershey with a 46-7 rout of Dallas for the PIAA Class 4A title.

In between, the Jaguars rolled in and out of conference play and added their eighth WPIAL title since 2004. They outscored their opponents 739-69.

Coach Bill Cherpak said the Jaguars hope to have the pieces to reload for another run after considerable graduation losses on both sides of the ball.

At the same time, the rest of WPIAL Class 4A hopes to put together a formula for WPIAL gold and unseat the defending champs.

“There is some really good competition throughout 4A, no doubt,” said Cherpak, whose team has won three of the four WPIAL Class 4A titles and is 50-4 overall since the PIAA expanded to six classifications for the 2016 season.

“With every kid on the team, they don’t know anything other than going to the WPIAL championship game. They know they are the hunted again, and they relish it. They want the expectation that they are the favorite, but they know it won’t be easy. There are a lot of teams, obviously, who want to be where we are.”

The landscape of Class 4A changed considerably with an expansion to three conferences as teams moved up, down and sideways.

South Fayette, which beat Thomas Jefferson for the WPIAL 4A title in 2018, moved up to Class 5A, and Ambridge moved down to Class 3A.

New teams in the Class 4A expansion are Aliquippa, Chartiers Valley, Armstrong, Hampton, Mars, Plum and McKeesport.

“It’s pretty exciting to come in and face new teams, ones we haven’t played before or haven’t played in half a century or so,” said McKeesport coach Matt Miller, whose team went 9-4 overall in 2019. “Hopefully, we can build up some good rivalries. We’re only a river away from some of our opponents. The proximity of most of the matchups makes it exciting for the community. A lot of our kids know the kids who play at West Mifflin, Thomas Jefferson or Belle Vernon.”

McKeesport made it to the WPIAL Class 5A semifinals last year before falling to eventual WPIAL champion and PIAA semifinalist Gateway.

“McKeesport is a tough matchup for anybody because of how talented they are overall and what they can do with the (flex bone) offense,” Cherpak said. “It adds such a whole different dynamic to our conference and to 4A overall.”

Mars also was a WPIAL 5A playoff qualifier a year ago.

Aliquippa, with a Class A-sized enrollment, has “played up” for numerous seasons, whether it was Class AA under the old formula or Class 3A most recently.

The Quips were bumped up to Class 4A by the PIAA last December as they fell under the PIAA’s competitive balance rule, which takes postseason success and transfers into account for all such placement decisions.

Several weeks after the initial ruling, Aliquippa administrators dropped an appeal to the PIAA.

Quips coach Mike Warfield admitted he still is a little frustrated over the decision, citing the differences in roster sizes from his team to others in Class 4A and the possible safety issues that could arise over the course of a season.

But, he says, his team will be ready to play.

“The kids work hard to be prepared, no matter what class we’re in,” Warfield said. “That’s not going to change. They are anxious to get out there and perform the best they can.”

Aliquippa will face New Castle, Beaver, Chartiers Valley, Montour and Blackhawk in the new-look Parkway Conference.

Aliquippa, which lost to Central Valley in last year’s WPIAL Class 3A title game, was 6-1 against current Class 4A teams the past four seasons. It swept Montour in a nonconference series the past two seasons.

The Quips won the WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A titles in 2018 and also were WPIAL runners-up in ’16 and ’17.

As the season draws closer, West Mifflin hopes to have a question answered soon.

The WPIAL last November banned the Titans from the 2020 playoffs for use of an ineligible player during the ’19 season.

West Mifflin plans to appeal the decision, but no date for a hearing with the PIAA has been set. The Titans went 5-5 last year and lost to South Fayette in the WPIAL quarterfinals.

Pitt commit Nahki Johnson returns to the lead West Mifflin, which has five starters back on both sides of the ball.

Teams in the Class 4A Big Eight Conference found a hole in their schedule when Uniontown decided in early August to call off contact sports for the season because of coronavirus safety concerns. By the time the school reversed course in late August and decided to play football, it was left with an independent schedule.

Despite the multitude of coaching changes in the WPIAL each year, Class 4A was remarkably stable in the offseason. There wasn’t a single coaching move among the classification’s 22 teams.

“We’re down with a lot of people we’re familiar with,” said longtime Mars head coach Scott Heinauer, who leads the Planets into the new-look Greater Allegheny Conference with Armstrong, Hampton, Highlands, Plum, Knoch, Greensburg Salem and Indiana.

Mars features the running of senior Teddy Ruffner, who tallied nearly 2,000 yards on 263 carries last year.

“It will be interesting to see what happens throughout the season in our conference and overall,” Heinauer said. “There are a lot of changes in 4A, and that has created some fun matchups and scenarios. Every game will be crucial.”

If the PIAA hosts a state tournament for the six classifications, the top two teams from each conference and two wild cards based on Gardner Points — eight in all – will contend for a WPIAL Class 4A title. If the PIAA doesn’t, the three conference champs and one wild card will make up the four-team Class 4A field.

“I think this year there is more of a sense of urgency to be ready,” said Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert, who will lead his Leopards against McKeesport in the season opener Sept. 11. “Over the past five years, we’ve done our job in the regular season and haven’t really had to worry about getting into the playoffs. We’ve finished either first or second. Moving forward with the limited number of teams, the margin for error is less than it has been in the past.”

THE FAVORITE

1.Thomas Jefferson (16-0)

The Jaguars returned to the top of the mountain in 2019 with their fourth WPIAL title in five years and eighth since 2004. Despite losing several all-conference performers to graduation, TJ has talent returning, including Youngstown State verbal commit Preston Zandier, and others ready to make their mark.

Preseason rankings

2. McKeesport (9-4)

3. Montour (5-6)

4. Mars (6-5)

5. Aliquippa (11-2)

*Records from 2019

THE STARS

Rodney Gallagher — Laurel Highlands, so., WR/DB

The speedy 6-foot receiver made his mark as a freshman and already owns football offers from Michigan, Penn State, Pitt and others. He helped the Mustangs boys basketball team win the WPIAL Class 5A title in February.

Nahki Johnson — West Mifflin, sr., TE/DE

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound tight end and defensive end still is garnering major Division I interest despite giving a verbal commitment to Pitt more than a year ago. Johnson earned an offer from BCS national champion LSU in July.

Max Matolcsy — Plum, sr., TE/WR/OLB

A multi-talented force on both sides of the ball for the Mustangs, the Penn commit recorded 138 tackles last year, including 19 for a loss, and added five sacks.

Wahkeem Roman — Highlands, sr., OL/DT

A force in the trenches for the Golden Rams, Roman earned first-team All-Northern Conference honors last year at defensive tackle. The 6-4, 275-pounder hopes to increase his stock in 2020 and have more Division I programs calling.

Teddy Ruffner — Mars, sr., RB/DB

Getting college attention for baseball and football, the explosive runner led the Planets in 2019 with 1,919 yards on 263 carries as Mars earned a spot in the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs.

DON’T MISS

Sept. 25: Belle Vernon at Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson has won 16 conference games in a row. The last team to beat the Jaguars in conference was the rival Leopards in 2017. Belle Vernon unseated TJ for the then-Big Nine Title.

Oct. 16: Aliquippa at Montour

The teams met in nonconference play the past two seasons, and the Quips won both meetings. The Spartans hope for a measure of revenge in a game that could decide the Parkway Conference title.

Oct. 23: McKeesport at Thomas Jefferson

The matchup between the WPIAL heavyweights could be for the Big Eight Conference title as the Tigers hope to make their mark in their conference debut.

THE PREVIEWS

Here are links to TribHSSN’s team-by-team previews for Class 4A.

Parkway Conference

Aliquippa

Beaver

Blackhawk

Chartiers Valley

Montour

New Castle

Greater Allegheny Conference

Armstrong

Greensburg Salem

Hampton

Highlands

Indiana

Knoch

Mars

Plum

Big Eight Conference

Belle Vernon

Laurel Highlands

McKeesport

Ringgold

Thomas Jefferson

Trinity

West Mifflin

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

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