WPIAL Class 4A breakdown: Thomas Jefferson to again face challengers for crown
Belle Vernon got the better of rival Thomas Jefferson in their conference clash last October.
The 21-17 victory helped the Leopards capture the conference title and finish the regular season undefeated.
But about a month later, the Jaguars gained a measure of revenge in the WPIAL semifinals with a 27-0 triumph. TJ went on to claim its third WPIAL title in as many seasons.
As the 2018 season dawns, the Jaguars again are the hunted in Class 4A. Coach Bill Cherpak knows his players will be ready to fend off the challengers to the crown.
“The kids realize year after year what’s at stake,” Cherpak said. “They feel the responsibility of carrying on that tradition of the program and what is expected of them from alumni and pretty much everybody connected to the program.”
Thomas Jefferson finished 11-2 overall and suffered a loss to eventual state champion Erie Cathedral Prep in the PIAA quarterfinals.
“The seniors this year know nothing but winning the WPIAL,” Cherpak said. “It’s their final year, and they don’t want that to slip away.”
But Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert thinks his Leopards, with quarterback Jared Hartman and an experienced rushing corps among those returning, can take that next step and bring home the program’s first WPIAL title since 1995.
“Thomas Jefferson is a favorite in 4A, and they have the hardware to prove it over the past five to 10 years,” Humbert said. “We’ve been able to beat them two out of the past three years, but at the end of the day, they got the job done when it mattered the most. They are the defending champs. Our guys are motivated coming back after being one win away from Heinz Field.”
The Big 8 Conference returns TJ, Belle Vernon, Trinity, West Mifflin, Greensburg Salem, Laurel Highlands and Ringgold. Indiana stays in 4A and moves to the Big 8, while Albert Gallatin bumped up to 5A and Uniontown dropped to 3A.
South Fayette, Montour and New Castle, the top three teams, respectively, in the Northwest Nine standings last year, join conference mainstays Highlands, Knoch, Blackhawk and Ambridge in the newly named Northwest 8.
Montour defeated South Fayette last year to punch its ticket to the WPIAL finals.
Playoff qualifier Mars now is in 5A.
“The conference is very difficult no matter who we play,” Knoch second-year coach Frank Whalen said. “The competition is extremely good in 4A in this conference. It’s a physical conference and, in my opinion, one of the toughest in all of the WPIAL.”
New to the Northwest 8 and 4A overall is Beaver, a perennial playoff contender which moved up from 3A where it was a WPIAL semifinalist last year.
Beaver has played in the WPIAL postseason 10 of the past 11 years. Its only non-playoff season in that stretch was in 2016, but the Bobcats went 7-2 overall and lost out on a tiebreaker with Central Valley.
“There’s some familiarity with teams in our conference who are close neighbors,” Beaver coach Jeff Beltz said. “We have a number of players back with valuable experience, and we’re always looking to develop that depth we’ll need to compete as we move up in classification and join what is a very challenging conference. We feel pretty good about our team. The key for us, and for every team in 4A, is staying as healthy as possible throughout the season. ”
Change in the offseason came to four 4A teams in terms of new head coaches.
The biggest move was at Ringgold, where former Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac is at the helm. Zmijanac went 237-36 with six WPIAL titles and one state championship in 21 seasons at Aliquippa. Under his guidance, the Quips made the WPIAL finals each of the past 10 seasons.
“Mike’s coming in there, and he knows how to win, that’s for sure,” Cherpak said. ”(Ringgold) should be improved.”
Zach Hayward returns to his alma mater as the new Blackhawk coach. The 2009 graduate helped the Cougars qualify for the WPIAL 3A title game in 2006 and ’08.
Blackhawk is hoping for a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Indiana is led by first-year coach Brandon Overdorff, who served as the coach of his alma mater, Purchase Line in District 6, from 2012-16 and was an assistant last year under Ed Dalton at McGuffey.
The Indians are hoping for a playoff trip for the first time since 2014.
Jake Just was elevated to head coach at Laurel Highlands in January after his brother, Zach, resigned to take a principal job at South Allegheny. The 2002 Greensburg Salem grad will face his alma mater Sept. 21 as the Mustangs hope to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus.
With 16 teams in 4A, eight in each conference, the WPIAL playoff qualifiers will be the top four teams in each conference. The top two teams in each conference will host first-round games.
The WPIAL title game will be the weekend of Nov. 16 at Heinz Field along with 6A, 3A and 1A. Classes 5A (Norwin High School) and 2A (Robert Morris University), with 24 and 31 teams, respectively, will hold their title games a week later.
The WPIAL 4A champ will join the PIAA tournament in the quarterfinals.
“There’s a lot of talent the past two years that was lost to graduation from (4A),” veteran South Fayette coach Joe Rossi said. “But there still are a lot of good players, and it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. There will be a lot of teams vying for conference titles and the WPIAL championship.”
1. Thomas Jefferson (11-2)
Winners of the past three WPIAL titles, the Jaguars continue to reload. This year’s group will be led by junior quarterback Shane Stump and lineman Dom Serapiglia, who is drawing Division I interest from FBS and FCS schools.
2. Belle Vernon (10-1)
3. South Fayette (11-1)
4. West Mifflin (5-5)
5. New Castle (7-4)
*Records from 2017
PLAYERS TO WATCH
South Fayette, sr., OG/DT
The 6-foot-3, 275-pound anchor along the offensive line committed to Richmond in late June. Elia will be counted on to help open holes in the run game and protect in the pass game with several new starters at the skill positions.
Belle Vernon, jr., P/K
Guess was nation’s the top-ranked punter in the Class of 2020 and the No. 13 kicker at the Kohl’s Kicking Camp. The five-star punter and kicker, on the radar of several Division I programs, averaged 42 yards per punt last season, made 31 extra points and recorded 26 touchbacks.
Belle Vernon, jr., QB/DB
Hartman (6-2, 210) accounted for 24 total touchdowns last year - 15 passing and nine rushing - as the Leopards won the Big 9 Conference and made it to the WPIAL semifinals.
West Mifflin, sr., RB/DB
Parker earned nearly two dozen Division I offers, including several from the Mid-American Conference, but the two-way standout (5-10, 180) gave a verbal commitment to FCS Howard on Aug. 2. Parrish, a Trib HSSN preseason all-star, rushed for 884 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.
Thomas Jefferson, sr., QB
Stump will be gunning for another big year under center for the Jaguars as they attempt to defend their 4A championship. Last year, he completed 85 passes for 1,621 yards - a 19.1 average - and tossed 24 touchdowns, including six in the postseason.
9.7 Thomas Jefferson at Belle Vernon
The early-season matchup is expected to go a long way in shaping the Big 8 Conference race. The Leopards beat the Jaguars 21-17 in Week 7 last year en route to the conference championship.
9.7 South Fayette at New Castle
The 2017 conference champion Lions face a stiff early road test as the Hurricanes, playoff qualifiers a season ago, hope to be in the title mix in the Northwest 8. South Fayette won last year’s meeting 42-33.
10.26 Thomas Jefferson at West Mifflin
The Titans hope the home conference finale in Week 9 has special meaning in the conference and for the playoffs. The Jaguars won last year’s meeting 37-7.