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Road to WPIAL Class 4A championship goes through Thomas Jefferson

August 24, 2016 GMT

Thomas Jefferson won the WPIAL Class AAA championship last season with a tried and true winning formula: outstanding offense, dominating defense and solid special teams play,

The high-energy Jaguars rolled to the WPIAL title at Heinz Field with a stirring 20-7 victory over Central Valley.

“It was a great year and one of the most enjoyable of my coaching career,” Bill Cherpak, Thomas Jefferson’s coach, said. “It was a magical year all-around. The scene at Heinz Field was one I will never forget. The support from the student body, band, cheerleaders and the entire Jaguar Nation was awesome.”

Move forward to 2016.

It appears the road to Heinz Field in Class 4A will go through TJ this season.

“Last year is over,” Cherpak said. “Just because people say we’re going to be good, we can’t get hung up on that.

“We need to replace our leaders from last year, (Braden) Pahanish and (Adam) Staudt. We need somebody to replace them. And we need to stay healthy, just like everyone else. We can’t afford to have anybody get hurt.”

Two of the more highly touted members of the squad are senior Zane Zandier, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound wide receiver/defensive back, and junior Devin Danielson, a 6-3, 295-pound lineman.

Both are Division I recruits.

Zandier is being recruited as an outside linebacker and has received offers from the likes of West Virginia, Kansas, Syracuse, Boston College, Virginia, Toledo, Ohio, Bowling Green, Kent State, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Princeton, Dartmouth, Villanova, Robert Morris, Monmouth, Cincinnati, Bucknell, Temple, Yale and Buffalo. He also has been talking to representatives from Penn State and Northwestern.

“After winning the WPIAL championship last year, we expect to come back stronger and win the WPIAL and also make a state run,” Zandier said.

Zandier excelled from his safety position during the team’s playoff run a year ago and, in particular, against Central Valley in the WPIAL championship game.

“The fact that we have a number of returning starters from last year is definitely promising,” said Zandier, who finished with 26 receptions for 427 yards last season. “We’ve been working very hard to be even better than we were last year.

“A large goal of mine is to win a state championship and help lead my team to that ultimate goal.”

Cherpak expects nothing less than a dominating performance from Zandier.

“Obviously, Zane has a big advantage with his size, but also with his athletic ability and ball skills. He is a very physical player,” Cherpak said. “He needs to dominate games, on both sides of the ball; just be a force, and he should be. He’s already a much better player and much better athlete than he was last year.”

The recruiting process has begun to pick up steam for Danielson, who has been a starter since his freshman season.

West Virginia, Iowa State, Temple, Virginia, among others, have shown early interest in Danielson.

“Our expectations are always high,” he said. “We want to repeat our WPIAL championship, then make it as far as we can in the state playoffs.

“Our team has great chemistry. Most of the kids on the team have been playing together for several years. I have been on a team with some of the guys since I was 6.”

Zandier, Danielson and seniors Quinton Hill (RB/LB), Jon Muehlbauer (WR/DB) and Jake Giegerich (TE/LB) were all-conference selections in 2015.

Hill, who has landed college offers from Howard and St. Francis (Pa.), accounted for 768 yards on the ground in four WPIAL playoff games last season.

The TJ speedster finished the year with 1,723 yards and 24 touchdowns on 214 carries, an average of 8.1 yards per attempt.

Muehlbauer and Zandier led the team in receiving a year ago, combining for 1,030 yards on 58 catches. Muehlbauer was the Jaguars’ No. 1 receiver with 32 catches for 603 yards and five scores.

“The strength of the team will certainly be our skill players,” Cherpak said. “We’ll play to our strengths.

“Also, we expect the defense to be good again. We’re making strides every day. The attitude’s good; work ethic’s good.”

Other returning starters include senior quarterback Bobby Kelley, senior lineman A.J. Putignano and sophomore long snapper Dom Serapiglia, who will start at the center position.

It was a trying 2015 season for Kelley, who was sidelined early with appendicitis. He then was hit by pneumonia and, later, mononucleosis. Kelley recovered and was in the lineup midway through the season.

Other key skill-position players include senior Luke Petruzzi, and juniors Justin Vigna and Sean Bell, at running back; senior Nick Freiwald, and juniors Garret Fairman and Nick Urbanowicz, at wide receiver; along with junior Noah Palmer, at tight end.

Jimbo Nassida and Dustin Lanning are the frontrunners at the two guard positions on the offensive line.

Danielson anchors the defensive line as the lone returning starter up front, with Giegerich and Hill at linebacker. The entire secondary returns with Zandier, Muehlbauer and Freiwald.

Petruzzi, Fairman and Shaw are leading linebacking candidates, while Urbanowicz and Vigna provide depth in the secondary.

Tommy Campbell, a senior WR/DB, handled the kicking duties in 2015 and returns this season. Two other senior reserves for the Jaguars are Nick Territt (RB/LB) and Scott Ruffing (WR/DB).

Among the top freshman prospects in the program are Shane Stump (QB/DB), Dan Deabner (WR/DB), James Martinis (TE/LB) and Logan Danielson (OL/DL).

Ray Fisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or rfisher@tribweb.com.