South Xtra: Work ethic puts TJ at top of Section 4
Thomas Jefferson's Chase Winovich scores despite defensive effort of West Mifflin's Cleave Randolph.
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Dom DeCicco had a particular goal in mind when he was hired as the Thomas Jefferson High School basketball coach eight years ago.
"I wanted Thomas Jefferson to become the Blackhawk of the South Hills," DeCicco said. "I wanted us to be able to have powerhouse programs in both football and basketball."
Thomas Jefferson continues to have one of the best football programs in the state under longtime coach Bill Cherpak. And, as far as the basketball program, the Jaguars have been quite formidable under DeCicco, especially this winter.
Thomas Jefferson capped a perfect run through WPIAL Class AAA Section 4 last Friday night with a 57-38 road victory against West Mifflin in a showdown for the section title. The Jaguars finished 12-0 in section play and ended the regular season with a 16-6 overall record.
Thomas Jefferson finished two games ahead of West Mifflin (15-5, 10-2) in the section standings and a whopping six games in front of East Allegheny (12-10, 6-6), Elizabeth Forward (12-9, 6-6) and Steel Valley (12-8, 6-6), who are all headed to the WPIAL playoffs after tying for third place.
"We're very proud to get through section [play] unbeaten and it really means a lot this season because our section was loaded with good teams," DeCicco said. "In the eight years I've been coaching at Thomas Jefferson, I would say this was the second-toughest section.
"One through five, the top teams in the section were capable of beating anyone. It wasn't easy to go 12-0."
After taking a few days off to celebrate the section championship, Thomas Jefferson is looking forward to the playoffs. The Jaguars are No. 5 in the Post-Gazette's WPIAL Class AAA rankings. They were seeded sixth by the WPIAL when the brackets were announced Tuesday.
The Jaguars will play Laurel Highlands (15-6, 10-2), co-champions of Section 3, in a first-round game Tuesday at a site and time to be determined.
"Our kids are really excited about the playoffs and the opportunity in front of them," DeCicco said. "They're playing with a lot of confidence right now and I feel like we're playing as well as we have all year, which is what you want going into the playoffs."
DeCicco, whose team is on a four-game winning streak, feels the turning point for his team came on Jan. 23 when it was handled, 69-47, by Montour in a non-section road game. Montour is ranked third in Class AAA.
"Playing that game was a valuable experience for us because it exposed our weaknesses," DeCicco said. "When you are playing inferior competition and winning, it's easy to overlook your weaknesses. After the Montour game, though, our kids knew what our weaknesses were and have worked really hard."
Thomas Jefferson's main strength might be toughness, a trait it showed in holding West Mifflin to 38 points in the Jaguars' biggest game of the season. That is not surprising, considering many of TJ's key players were also stars in football, including three seniors in 6-1 forward Joe Carroll, 6-0 guard Zach Schademan and 6-4 forward Chase Winovich.
Carroll, who is headed to Robert Morris to play quarterback on a football scholarship, is Thomas Jefferson's leading scorer with a 16.2-points-per-game average.
DeCicco points out that a number of non-football players have also helped the Jaguars' cause this season, including 6-1 junior forward Jason Horan, who had 11 points in the section-clinching victory, 6-3 senior forward Adam Miller and 5-11 junior guard Zach Talley.
All have played their part in Thomas Jefferson holding its opponents to 57 or fewer points in each of its 11 wins since Jan. 4.
"There isn't anything fancy we do and we're not going to overwhelm you with talent," DeCicco said. "Our kids work very hard, though, and they play great defense and we create a lot of our offense off our defense."
First Published February 14, 2013 12:00 am