South Xtra: As usual, TJ's defense tough

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The Thomas Jefferson football team has made six appearances in the WPIAL Class AAA title game in the past 10 years.

Each of those teams boasted a strong defense, including four that allowed 8.7 points per game or fewer.

"You can't make it to Heinz Field without a strong defense," said Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak, as the Jaguars prepare for their 15th semifinal appearance in 16 years. "We will find out Friday just how good our defense is."

Thomas Jefferson, the Big Nine Conference champions and No. 2 seed in the Class AAA bracket, will play No. 3 seed Central Valley in Friday's semifinals at Chartiers Valley High School.

"The play of our defense is a big reason we're still unbeaten," Cherpak said. "Our first team defense has allowed only five touchdowns this year, including two [in last Friday's quarterfinal game] against Highlands."

Thomas Jefferson has recorded five shutouts and allowed only 70 points in 11 games, which averages to 6.4 points per game. That's fewer points per game than any of the six Jaguars teams that played in the title game.

"We had seven starters back on defense, but one has been out the entire season," said Cherpak, referring to defensive end Corey Payne. "Corey had knee surgery, then had to have a second surgery. He hasn't played a down for us this season."

With Payne out of the picture, Cherpak moved one of his returning starters to fill the void.

"I moved Austin Boyd from linebacker to defensive end," Cherpak said. "Austin was a natural at end. The change solidified our defensive line."

Boyd has recorded 15 unassisted tackles, nine assists and three sacks. He is joined on the defensive line by tackles Jake Guinn and Mat Nagy and end Russell Siess.

Guinn has 22 unasissted tackles, nine assists and three sacks. Nagy has 22 unassisted tackles, 10 assists and two sacks. Siess has 11 unassisted tackles, nine assists and five sacks.

"Boyd has been one of the catalysts of our defense," Cherpak said.

Thomas Jefferson's "marquee player" on defense is middle linebacker Chase Winovich, a University of Michigan recruit. Winovich leads the Jaguars with 35 unassisted tackles, 13 assists, 13 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

"Chase is one of the top linebackers I've ever had," Cherpak said. "He does so many things. He's everything and more. And what he wants more than anything is to win. Nothing else matters."

Winovich and Eric Fairman are the inside linebackers, while Austin Kemp and Luke Deanovich are the outside linebackers.

"Eric is a senior who hadn't played football since he was a kid," Cherpak said. "He plays basketball and baseball and decided he wanted to play football one game into our season. He's done a great job considering his lack of experience."

Fairman ranks second on the team with 29 unassisted tackles and 12 assists. Kemp has 22 unassisted tackles and 10 assists. Deanovich has 16 unassisted tackles, eight assists and three sacks.

The defensive backfield consists of cornerbacks Dalton Dietrich and Dan Matalula and safety Christian Briesinger. Dietrich leads the team with four interceptions, including one in last week's quarterfinal win against Highlands.

"Jack Giran [former Steel Valley head coach] has done a great job with our defense," said Cherpak, referring to the Jaguars defensive coordinator.

Giran and the Jaguars defense will face their stiffest challenge of the season on Friday.

"I've been watching film for more than eight hours and Central Valley has some unbelievably talented skilled players. I can't remember a team with as much skill as Central Valley. Our defense will have to be playing our best to beat them."

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