Entering his fifth season as a head coach in the Class AAA Big Nine Conference, Matt Humbert knows what Thomas Jefferson represents.
Under Bill Cherpak's guidance, the Jaguars have been nothing less than a machine, finishing first in the conference seven times in the past eight years. To hopefuls such as Humbert's Belle Vernon team, they're Melville's white whale, a hotly pursued object of desire that is ultimately never caught.
Entering the second week of Humbert's first season as Leopards coach, his team is now tasked with the challenge of stopping that force.
"It always seems like you're playing that prototypical Thomas Jefferson team," Humbert said. "They're just so big and dominant up front. It's like there's a certain mold at TJ and those kids just keep filling that mold."
It only took one game this season for that successful blueprint to re-emerge. Last week against Ringgold, which Humbert coached the previous four seasons, the Jaguars throttled a team that many expected to be their toughest competitor in the conference, 49-6.
In the win, Austin Kemp ran roughshod over the Rams, rushing for 253 yards and four touchdowns. It was the kind of performance that set Thomas Jefferson up well for an opponent that figures to be another one of its biggest challengers this season.
"We really feel like we're everyone's biggest game," Cherpak said. "That just comes with the territory of being successful and being a good team. We need to be ready to play every game."
Thomas Jefferson's domination of the conference has extended to Belle Vernon, which has not beaten the Jaguars in more than a decade. There's a sentiment, though, that this year could potentially be different.
In addition to a new coach with a strong pedigree, the Leopards return their top offensive player in running back Anthony Levis, who missed all of last season with a foot injury. After rushing for 1,136 yards as a sophomore, Levis went off for 125 yards and two touchdowns in a 44-14 victory against Trinity last week.
Levis' presence, along with the new spread offense Humbert has implemented, gives Belle Vernon a better chance against Thomas Jefferson than it had in last season's 35-0 loss. But while the Jaguars will always linger as a measuring stick for other teams in the conference, opponents still have room for perspective, win or lose.
"If we're not successful against TJ on Friday night, there's too much football left for me to be alarmed too much," Humbert said.
■ Game: Thomas Jefferson vs. Belle Vernon, 7:30 p.m.
■ Where: Bill Weir Stadium, Rostraver.
■ Check this out: The Thomas Jefferson Jaguars have been the top cat in the Big Nine for most of the past decade or more, but the Leopards would like to change that.