WPIAL Class 4A football breakdown: Thomas Jefferson motivated after title-game defeat

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019 | 11:19 AM


The Blackhawk football team engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in the WPIAL last year, going from 2-7 in 2017 to 10-2 last year and making the WPIAL Class 4A semifinals.

Despite having to replace a number of key players on both sides of the ball, second-year coach Zack Hayward hopes his Cougars can again contend in Class 4A.

“Things are looking good,” Hayward said. “Obviously, we graduated a lot, but we have skill guys back with experience. I would put our guys up with anybody. Last year, we competed well, and for it being my first year in the program, I couldn’t ask for a better group to come into. It’s Year 2 for the coaching staff, and we’ve had a lot of time to break down things we did well and things we didn’t do so well. We’re excited to see what this senior class and this team overall can do.”

Blackhawk, which returns three All-Northwest 8 performers, including Division I prospect Marques Watson-Trent, saw its 2018 season come to an end at the hands of perennial contender Thomas Jefferson.

The Jaguars, who were denied a record-tying fourth consecutive WPIAL title by South Fayette last year, hope to regain the throne this fall. They have captured conference titles in 19 of the past 24 seasons and own seven WPIAL titles since 2004.

Veteran TJ coach Bill Cherpak said the title-game loss motivated his players in the offseason.

“Especially the senior class in terms of what they want to do in their final season,” Cherpak said. “They’ve had so much success. How do they want to go out?”

Cherpak understands with experienced all-conference players at a number of positions, including multi-year starter Shane Stump at quarterback and Princeton commit Mac Duda along the offensive line, his team will be a WPIAL favorite and again the hunted in Class 4A.

“Does a high ranking mean much? No,” Cherpak said. “We just have to stay healthy and be able to execute when the time calls for it.”

South Fayette hopes to contend again after last year’s run to its first WPIAL title since 2014. Heavy graduation losses came with the championship, but coach Joe Rossi, now in his 13th year with the Lions, feels his team, which includes last year’s leading rusher in Andrew Franklin (141 rushes, 833 yards, 10 TDs), can remain in the title hunt.

“We had 18 seniors, nine of which went on to play college football, and we’re proud of that,” Rossi said. “Every team loses good players every year, but we have a lot of good kids back with experience and others ready to step into key roles.”

Belle Vernon, which finished second to TJ in the Big Eight last year and fell to South Fayette in the WPIAL semifinals, welcomes back several starters, including senior quarterback Jared Hartman, who coach Matt Humbert said is 100 percent and ready to go after recovering from a severe knee injury last October.

“Things have been consistent over the past three years in 4A,” Humbert said. “You always seem to be chasing Thomas Jefferson, and they return a lot. South Fayette is one of those consistent teams, and they had a dynamic season last year. Hopefully, we’re right in the thick of things in the conference and in 4A overall. You have the teams that contend every year, and I think there are other programs ready to break through.”

In the second year of this two-year alignment cycle, there is no change in the conferences. The Big Eight includes Thomas Jefferson, Belle Vernon, West Mifflin, Greensburg Salem, Indiana, Trinity, Laurel Highlands and Ringgold; while the Northwest 8 features South Fayette, Blackhawk, Beaver, New Castle, Knoch, Montour, Highlands and Ambridge.

New Castle, Greensburg Salem, Beaver and West Mifflin all hope to make return trips to the WPIAL playoffs after runs to the postseason in 2018.

Four teams from the two conferences will qualify for the playoffs. The WPIAL champion will enter the PIAA tournament in the quarterfinal round.

There are five new head coaches in Class 4A this year

Rod Steele, who went 74-28 with two WPIAL titles and a PIAA championship in nine years at Steel Valley, takes over a West Mifflin team that suffered a 23-21 loss to Blackhawk in last year’s WPIAL quarterfinals.

He knows he will have Pitt commit and Steel Valley transfer Nahki Johnson in the fold as the 2019 campaign begins. The PIAA on July 30 overturned a WPIAL ruling that made the 6-foot-3, 225-pound defensive end ineligible to play for the Titans because of what the WPIAL felt was a transfer for athletic intent.

“The offseason went very well, and the kids have been buying into what the coaches want to do here,” Steele said. “Our conference is solid from top to bottom with a lot of competitive teams. The kids are ready to give themselves a chance.”

Brandon Mowry, a 2002 Knoch graduate who served as an assistant with the Knights the past 15 seasons, takes over a team that lost out on a playoff spot to New Castle last year in a Northwest 8 tiebreaker.

Don Phillips, who most recently served as the quarterbacks coach at Geneva College and has been a head coach or assistant at six WPIAL schools, hopes to turn around an Ambridge program which went 1-27 over the past three seasons, including 1-9 last fall.

Darwin Manges hopes to bring Ringgold, his alma mater, back to the playoffs. This will be his first coaching job in the WPIAL, but he has 12 years of head coaching experience (1999-2010) in Delaware.

A young Rams squad finished 0-10 last season. Ringgold last made the playoffs in 2016 when it went 9-3 and advanced to the Class 4A semifinals.

Rich Kolesar also takes over at his alma mater, replacing Jake Just as the coach at Laurel Highlands. The 2006 grad spent time as an assistant coach at Laurel Highlands (2010-13) and Albert Gallatin (2014, ’16-17). Laurel Highlands finished 3-7 last season with a 1-6 record in the Big Eight


THE FAVORITE

1. Thomas Jefferson (11-1)

The Jaguars return five all-conference performers in pursuit of their fourth WPIAL title in five seasons and eighth since 2004. Senior Logan Danielson, an all-conference offensive and defensive lineman, led the team in sacks the past two years.

Preseason rankings

2. Belle Vernon (9-2)

3. South Fayette (12-2)

4. West Mifflin (5-6)

5. Blackhawk (10-2)


THE STARS

Johnny CriseHighlands, sr., WR/LB

The 6-foot-6, 195-pounder continues to gain attention from Division I schools. Last year, in his first full season as a starter, he tallied 40 receptions for 796 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also is a Division I basketball prospect.

Dan DeabnerThomas Jefferson, sr., WR/DB

Speed and a knack for catching the football has made the Jaguars standout a high point of concentration for opposing defenses. A main target for senior quarterback Shane Stump in 2018, Deabner made 59 catches for 1,365 yards and tallied 21 total touchdowns.

Nahki Johnson – West Mifflin, jr., DE

Standing 6-3 and weighting 225 pounds, the Steel Valley transfer’s strength and athleticism impressed numerous Division I schools, and he received offers Penn State, West Virginia, Michigan and Mississippi State, among others. In the end, it was the offer from Pitt that won over the defensive stalwart.

George Padezanin – Montour, sr., OT/DT

The offensive road grater and defensive disrupter in the trenches played in the 2017 WPIAL title game, and he hopes for big things for the Spartans this fall. He has received close to two dozen FCS offers, including several from the Ivy League and locally from Duquesne and Robert Morris. He made 50 tackles, including seven for a loss, and recorded three sacks in 2018.

Marques Watson-Trent – Blackhawk, sr., RB/DB

The Division I prospect missed the final four games of 2018 with mononucleosis. He has earned offers from more than a dozen schools, including Duquesne, Robert Morris, Lehigh, Youngstown State, Cornell and Navy. He collected 1,050 total yards and 15 total touchdowns and added 70 tackles and five forced fumbles.


DON’T MISS

Sept. 7: Belle Vernon at Thomas Jefferson

The Big Eight rivals clash for bragging rights and an early-season conference advantage. The Jaguars raced past the Leopards, 36-14, last year en route to an undefeated conference crown. Belle Vernon won the 2017 conference meeting 21-17.

Sept. 27: South Fayette at Blackhawk

The late September matchup could go a long way in determining the conference championship and a top playoff spot. The Cougars were the only team to hold the Lions under 28 points last year. South Fayette’s 21-0 victory was one of its five shutouts in the regular season.

Oct. 25: West Mifflin at Thomas Jefferson

New Titans coach Rod Steele will get his first crack at the Jaguars in the regular-season finale. Thomas Jefferson has won seven in a row in the conference series. West Mifflin was last victorious in 2011 with a 27-14 triumph to cap an 8-1 regular season.


BREAKDOWNS

6A | 5A | 4A | 3A | 2A | A

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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