Thomas Jefferson has had one of the most successful football programs in the state over the past two decades. Now the boys basketball team is riding piggyback.
The Thomas Jefferson basketball team is having one of the best seasons in school history and coach Dom DeCicco doesn't try to hide the fact that football players play a huge role in the basketball program's success. And he likes it that way.
"To be honest, I've always had a core group of football players," said DeCicco, who is in his ninth season as the Jaguars' coach. "Cherp [football coach Bill Cherpak] encourages it. I just don't know why more schools don't do it. You take some football players and incorporate some basketball players, and it can work really well. We've had success with it."
Thomas Jefferson is 21-2 and meets Blackhawk (12-11) in a WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinal game tonight at North Allegheny. A win puts the Jaguars into the semifinals for only the fourth time in school history. A win also gives Thomas Jefferson the most wins since it went 22-6 in 1988 and made it to the WPIAL title game before losing to Aliquippa.
This season, three Thomas Jefferson starters and one of the top reserves are football players. The football players who are starters are 5-11 point guard Zach Talley, 6-4 center Chase Winovich (University of Michigan football recruit) and 6-2 forward Eric Fairman. The reserve is 6-2 forward Russell Seiss.
Talley has been one of the keys to Thomas Jefferson's success, running the team at point guard and averaging 12 points. Fairman averages 11. Charlie Scharbo, a 6-3 guard-forward who does not play football, leads the team in scoring at 16 points a game.
DeCicco said, "I don't know if I've ever seen a kid work so hard [as Scharbo] in the offseason."
More and more at bigger schools (Class AAAA and AAA), it's uncommon to see a basketball team with a number of football players having such a big impact. In this day of athletes specializing in one sport, it's more common to see football-basketball standouts at smaller schools.
"I think the thing is, there has never really been any question of whether our football players would play basketball," said Cherpak, who also is Thomas Jefferson's athletic director. "They're going to play things they like to play.
"First off, the things they do and work on in basketball will help in everything else they play. But honestly, the big thing is, you're in high school and you're not going to get a chance to ever do this again. Very few will go on to play college basketball. It should be a great time in their lives. Let them play whatever, enjoy it -- and keep the parents out of the way."
Of course, it helps when football and basketball coaches get along like DeCicco and Cherpak. DeCicco is big on football. He had three sons -- Dom Jr., Brock and Zach -- who were football stars at Thomas Jefferson and all played college football. Dom even made it to the NFL. They all played basketball, too.
Dom DeCicco knows football is No. 1 at Thomas Jefferson. That's why he works his spring and summer basketball workouts around football workouts, so players can attend both if they want.
"If you're smart, you do everything opposite of football," DeCicco said. "I've always said the intensity at practice ratchets up when the football players come. Even if the basketball skill set isn't where the other kids are, the football players can make you better."
This season is not the first taste of basketball success for DeCicco. He has won 138 games and four section titles in his nine years. But the Jaguars have gone to a different level this year.
"The football players have worked well for us," DeCicco said. "Now, you want to get where you have a couple of just basketball players, too. But incorporating the football players really works well."
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh