Inside the Program: Thomas Jefferson football
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With plenty of rivalry games taking place, the final week of the 2012 WPIAL regular season was one loaded with meaningful contests between some of the area's top teams. Perhaps no single squad benefitted more from last week than Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the entire season, the Jaguars ran neck-and-neck with their rival, West Mifflin, for the top spot in the Class AAA Big Nine Conference standings, with the winner of their week nine game taking the conference's top seed for the playoffs. Riding their customarily high-octane offense and a defense that gave up just 13 total yards in the second half, Thomas Jefferson notched a season-defining 28-14 victory, defeating the Titans for the sixth time in their past seven meetings. Most importantly, the win allowed the undefeated Jaguars to claim the top overall seed in the Class AAA playoffs, which will begin tonight when they play host to a 3-6 Hollidaysburg team that they defeated, 55-0, in the third week of the season. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Much has been made this season of Thomas Jefferson's offense, and understandably so. Coach Bill Cherpak's teams have always had a penchant for lighting up scoreboards and his team this year has exemplified that trend. The Jaguars averaged 42.9 points per game in the regular season, making them the top scoring offense in Class AAA and the fifth-best in the WPIAL. Only once this season did they fail to score 28 points or more (a 21-19 victory against Elizabeth Forward in their second game of the season). Much of the offensive success can be attributed to what is arguably the best pass-catch combo in the WPIAL -- quarterback Joe Carroll and wide receiver Zach Schademan. Carroll led all WPIAL passers with 33 touchdowns (to only three interceptions) and was fourth in passing yards with 1,737. Schademan, also an excellent punt returner, was sixth among WPIAL wide receivers with 926 yards, and had 21 touchdowns along with a yards per catch average of 21. Although Cherpak's teams have often had potent offenses, Cherpak said this team has "thrown the ball a little more this year" using a no-huddle, spread formation.
For much of the early part of his working life, Cherpak was far, far away from a football field, working at funeral homes after graduating from Pitt, where he was an offensive lineman, and spending two years in mortuary school. After spending time as an assistant coach for several seasons, Cherpak was hired as the head coach at Thomas Jefferson, where he began in 1995. In that time, he has established himself as one of the best coaches in the WPIAL, guiding Thomas Jefferson to a 189-36 record, a winning percentage of 84 percent. Cherpak has also led the Jaguars to two WPIAL and PIAA Class AAA titles in the past six seasons.
Entering the postseason with an unblemished record is far from new territory for Thomas Jefferson under Cherpak. Just three years ago, the Jaguars entered the postseason with a similarly high-powered offense and a 9-0 record, with the team winning those games by an average margin of victory of 31.2 points per game. After winning its first two games against Laurel Highlands and Franklin Regional, however, Thomas Jefferson was knocked off by a West Allegheny team that went 7-2 in the regular season. This season has marked the first since 2009 that the Jaguars finished the regular season undefeated, but Cherpak said that what happened three years ago won't have much of a bearing this year. "Honestly, the kids here don't even remember that," he said. "We've had plenty of undefeated seasons here. That wasn't their goal -- it was always to get to the playoffs and win a championship."
Thomas Jefferson's resume undoubtedly reads like one of a team with a strong veteran presence -- which is true, as top players such as Carroll and Schademan are seniors, and running back Jake Farrell is a junior -- but the team has a surprisingly high number of players with little experience in WPIAL football. Of the 77 players on the Jaguars' roster, 50 of them are freshmen or sophomores.
First Published November 2, 2012 12:00 am