AAA / BIG SEVEN: Thomas Jefferson becoming a destination for recruiters

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Steel Valley graduate Bill Cherpak has a high regard for Steel Valley taxpayer George Novak.

This goes back to the mid-1980s, when Cherpak was a lineman and Novak his head coach with the Ironmen. And that respect endures today, now that they are coaching peers -- Novak at Woodland Hills, Cherpak at Thomas Jefferson.

Novak's Wolverines are a perennial powerhouse and a veritable assembly line of talent.

"Obviously, Woodland Hills is No. 1 with recruiters," Cherpak said.

If so, his Jaguars may be 1-A.

Thomas Jefferson has become a juggernaut under Cherpak, a former Pitt lineman. It has gone to at least the WPIAL semifinals nine times in his 11 seasons.

The Jaguars have developed Heinz-sight recently, advancing to the WPIAL Class AAA championship game the past three years, winning it in 2004.

During this run, Thomas Jefferson has become a cornucopia of Division I talent. Six of its players have gone to or committed to major-college programs in the past seven years, and the trend is increasing.

Two current seniors have made verbal commitments to Division I teams -- wide receiver Dom DeCicco to Pitt and tight end Chris Drager to Virginia Tech. Classmate Dan Giegerich, a running back, is being courted by a number of big schools, according to Cherpak, and so is junior lineman Lucas Nix.

And there are other underclassmen with Division I potential.

Route 51 and Interstate 43 have become familiar to college recruiters, as Thomas Jefferson has gained football prominence. Cherpak said this is a fairly recent phenomenon, "probably the past four or five years," and has no explanation for it.

"I don't know if it speaks to our level of play or is simply a matter of having better athletes coming through," Cherpak said.

"When you have some success, [college] coaches see that and automatically think you have some guys there. Then if you have some big-time players, recruiters come in to see them and find out you have younger guys with talent they may be interested in later."

Lineman Tyler Reed, class of 2001, began this Division I talent surge. He went to Penn State and is now a rookie with the Chicago Bears, a sixth-round draft choice.

Reed was followed by Jon Drager, a running back-defensive back and Chris' brother, who went to Kent State in '03. Linebacker-quarterback Pete Winovich chose Bowling Green in '04, and lineman Nate Nix, Lucas' brother, signed with Pitt last year.

The Jaguars' success, on the field and with college scouts, is self-perpetuating. Junior varsity and middle school players are inspired to not only start someday for a program that has had only one losing season out of the past 15, but also to excel because guys like Dave Wannstedt might be watching.

"You can never put a value on that moment when the kids are lifting weights and coach Wannstedt walks into the room," Cherpak said. "They see other coaches come in. They get excited. It's a motivational thing."

Cherpak said he tells recruiters about players from other Western Pennsylvania schools, including those at Woodland Hills, and that Novak advises scouts about prospects at Thomas Jefferson.

The names are probably known.

BIG SEVEN DATA

TEAM TO BEAT
Thomas Jefferson The Jaguars have played in the past three WPIAL finals (winning in 2004) and reached the semifinals five consecutive years before that. Their prospects are great again as the top-ranked team in the Post-Gazette's WPIAL preseason rankings. Thomas Jefferson is led by two Division I recruits, receiver-defensive back Dom DeCicco (Pitt) and tight end-defensive end Chris Drager (Virginia Tech).

CONTENDERS
Trinity Ben Jennings, one of the top rushers in the district last season, graduated. But quarterback Cody Endres, a Connecticut recruit, leads an experienced squad that should contend for its first conference title since 1986. Senior Nick Weaver (TE 6-3, 245), a tackle last season, is getting Division I interest.

Keystone Oaks The Golden Eagles have a lot on the line -- literally -- with Pitt recruits Chris Jacobson (6-3, 290) and Myles Caragein (6-1, 265). Junior Johnny Fuhrer (5-7, 182) rushed for 1,118 yards and senior Chris DeFrancesco (6-0, 180) passed for 1,098 last year.

West Mifflin Quarterback Leon Green was proficient all-around as a sophomore, rushing for 906 yards, passing for 671 and scoring 12 touchdowns. The Titans, a WPIAL semifinalist in 2005, have a new coach, Joe Lamenza.

THE OTHERS
Peters Township Coach Keith Hartbauer has three quality seniors in Spencer Smith (FB/LB 6-3, 220), Nate Janusey (OL/DL 6-2, 270) and A.J. Sherer (WR/S 6-3, 185). The key player, however, might be junior Tyler Porco, who has started at quarterback since he was a freshman.

Chartiers Valley The Colts won a playoff game for the first time last season and have eight starters back from a quality defense. Seniors Jared Wells, a first-team all-conference tackle, and Brian Castello, the quarterback, should spearhead the offense.

Elizabeth Forward Senior wide receiver Devin Goda had 42 catches for 750 yards last fall and made first-team all-conference. He is the top returnee for the Warriors, who haven't had a winning season since 2000.

FIVE TO WATCH
Dom DeCicco, Sr., Thomas Jefferson, WR/DB, 6-3, 206; Cody Endres, Sr., Trinity, QB, 6-5, 220; Chris Drager, Sr., Thomas Jefferson, TE/DE, 6-4, 235; Leon Green, Jr., West Mifflin, QB, 6-1, 185; Chris Jacobson, Sr., Keystone Oaks, G/NT, 6-31/2, 300.

GAME OF THE YEAR
Trinity at Thomas Jefferson, Oct. 13.


RETURN TO MAIN INDEX


Rick Shrum can be reached at rshrum@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1911.


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