By Matt Popchock
Not too long ago the preseason chatter surrounding WPIAL Class AAA centered on which teams could come closest to knocking Thomas Jefferson off its lofty perch. Now it centers on whether or not the Jaguars can climb back.
TJ entered the 2009 postseason the same way it had entered the previous six, as the team to beat in its classification state-wide, let alone locally. The program had rolled to three district titles in a row and it was nearing an incredible seventh straight appearance in the Class AAA Final, building upon the WPIAL record of six it already held.
Three weeks later, another great veteran coach, Bob Palko, and his West Allegheny Indians played giant-killer. West A outlasted Thomas Jefferson 28-21 in the Semifinals at Chartiers Valley High School to end the Jags’ championship reign, and snap an equally incredible streak of 48 consecutive victories over WPIAL opponents.
The star of that game was Wisconsin linebacker recruit and then-Indians tailback Mike Caputo, who used Palko’s wildcat scheme to run roughshod over Thomas Jefferson’s defense for 259 offensive yards and four touchdowns.
In 2010 David struck down Goliath once again. A year after bowing to the No. 4 seed, TJ dropped another Semifinal decision, this time to a No. 13 seed, as eventual champion Central Valley continued its run of turning heads by blasting the Jaguars, 42-24, at North Allegheny’s Newman Stadium.
Thomas Jefferson held Central Valley’s star, sophomore Robert Foster, to just 145 offensive yards, but Foster made every play count, scoring four times (sound familiar?), and making a critical second-half interception.
Could these upsets merely be a byproduct of uncommonly great performances by two individuals? Or are they a sign of the times for one of the district’s greatest dynasties?
The Jaguars may be untouchable in terms of Cherpak’s reputation–he’s averaged over ten wins per season entering his 17th campaign at TJ–and in terms of the reputation of his teams, which always take after the intensity of their coach. But they’re not the clear-cut favorite they once were.
Still, they have the leadership necessary to rebound from a rude awakening. Senior quarterback Dom Presto is well-groomed for the job after having shared it with outgoing starter Ryan Crouse as a junior, and completing 53% of his passes for 886 yards and ten TD’s. That interception by Foster was one of just two picks he threw all year. Presto also scrambled for 133 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 36 carries.
Special teams will be interesting to watch with Big 33 kicker Mike Wainauskas having moved on to Slippery Rock, but it might not matter much because of the remaining offensive firepower. With Tom Grieves, one of the top receivers in Class AAA, gone, senior Nick Raimondi likely becomes Presto’s primary target. Raimondi put up 415 yards receiving on just 14 catches as a junior, and accounted for six of the Jaguars’ 21 total TD passes while making 27 solo tackles at his linebacker spot.
Zach Schademan has shown he too can contribute after showing glimpses of greatness during his sophomore season, catching eight passes for 177 yards and two TD’s to go with 15 tackles in the secondary.
Graduating T.J. Mastracia takes a dimension away from the running game, but senior tailback Ryan Ruffing can handle the extra workload. The first team All-Big Eight Conference honoree scored 12 touchdowns on the ground and finished with 861 yards, averaging over six per try. As a defensive back he made 45 tackles (36 solo) and averaged almost four per game.
You’d better believe Cherpak will ride that defense to play with more pride this year after seeing that pride get wounded in the playoffs by Foster, and, before him, by Rushel Shell. Fifteen seniors have graduated, including several key components of a unit that allowed a conference-low 16.3 points per game. But that only ranked seventh in Class AAA, and there is room for this group, which allowed 3.42 yards per play in 2010, to step up.
Part of why the ceiling is still high for TJ, and why it’s still a team that can dominate again, is because of how strong the Jaguars still are up front. Senior tight end/linebacker Bruno Natter led the Jaguars with 53 tackles (34 solo) in 2010, while younger brother Angelo Natter played his way onto the varsity squad and contributed a nice 22 tackles (11 solo). Junior center Pat Hall retains his starting job as well.
The last two years it was a Parkway Conference team that did in Thomas Jefferson. A team from that conference has made it to the WPIAL Championships five years in a row. It seems to be the only thing standing in the way of the Jags, who are widely expected to win their 11th conference crown in 12 seasons.
That, and Montour, last year’s Parkway Conference winner, which fell one win shy of the Class AAA title (and also lost the 2007 Class AAA Final to Thomas Jefferson). The Spartans, who return most of their starters from their nearly undefeated 2010 season, may be the only team outside the Big Eight Conference that can beat TJ.
The program’s motto is “Tradition Never Graduates.” Judging by an incredible run of 13 straight Class AAA Semifinal appearances, and a five-year stretch during with the Jaguars have won 52 of 56 games, the chances seem very good for their Class of 2012 to get Thomas Jefferson back to Heinz Field and contribute to that tradition before trading shoulder pads for mortar boards.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)