PIAA football playoffs: 30 years in 30 days — Central Catholic, Thomas Jefferson golden in ’04
The PIAA had been hosting state playoffs in all but one fall high school sport since 1976. Soccer, volleyball, tennis, golf, cross country and field hockey all crowned state champions once the district playoffs concluded.
The lone exception to the fall state playoff slate was high school football.
It wasn’t until 1988 when PIAA officials finally pulled the trigger on the idea of having a yearly state football playoff.
From George Novak and Woodland Hills losing in a mud pit to Bob Palko and West Allegheny finding the third time really was the charm to Neil Walker and Pine-Richland competing in a heartbreaking overtime loss in a snowstorm and to Tyler Boyd and the golden Bears of Clairton winning four straight state championships.
There have been a lot of thrills and heartbreak in three decades of state championship football. Leading up to the 2018 state finals, the TribLIVE High School Sports Network will look back at how WPIAL teams have fared in the PIAA championships with 30 years in 30 days.
The Year: 2004
The Site: Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey
The Champs: Central Catholic, Thomas Jefferson, Lansdale Catholic, Southern Columbia
The Headline: Central Catholic and Thomas Jefferson flex golden muscles while Rochester whitewashed
The Lowdown: One of the most dominant WPIAL teams in the PIAA playoff era cruised to a 16-0 season with a dominant district and state playoff run.
The 2004 Central Catholic Vikings are a member of the WPIAL Hall of Fame for a reason. The 2004 postseason is the reason.
The Vikings outscored their four district and three state playoff opponents 267-36.
But it wasn’t just the results. On both the “Highway to Heinz” and the “Road to Hershey,” they kept stars and future NFL players in check, including Sean Lee of Upper St. Clair, Justin King of Gateway and Shady McCoy of Bishop McDevitt.
By the time they got to Hershey, Central Catholic had no reason to fear a Neshaminy team that three years earlier ended the WPIAL’s hopes of a state finals sweep by beating Woodland Hills, 21-7.
Central Catholic showed no mercy in building a 35-0 lead by halftime on two Shane Murray touchdown passes, a Murray scoring run and a pair of touchdown runs by Eugene Jarvis.
Jarvis, who caught one of those Murray touchdown tosses, scored two more times in the third quarter with the mercy rule running clock.
The diminutive and elusive running back ended up with 192 yards on 24 carries.
Murray, who added 62 rushing yards, was only 6 of 8 passing for 99 yards.
The Central Catholic defense, which forced five Redskins turnovers, limited Neshaminy to 191 total yards, including minus-4 yards passing in the 49-14 win.
• The first of three state championships for Bill Cherpak and Thomas Jefferson came in 2004 when they crushed defending state champ Manheim Central, 56-20.
The Barons were missing their leading rusher after junior running back Jeremiha Hunter broke his arm in the state semifinals. That may have forced Manheim Central to throw the ball more, a decision that proved to be a mistake.
Thomas Jefferson picked off Manheim Central quarterback Tyler Reifsnyder a record six times, including interceptions by Nate Nix and Kevin Franz that set up a pair of Dan Giegerich touchdown runs that put the Jaguars up 14-0.
With TJ leading 14-7, Manheim Central drove down to the Jaguars 1-yard line, where the Barons came up short on two quarterback sneaks and running back Craig Gatchell’s attempt on fourth down.
“That was the biggest play we made in the game, hands down,” Cherpak said after the eventual blowout. “Maybe the biggest all year.”
Fired up by the goal line stand, Thomas Jefferson went on a 14-play, 99-yard drive that ended in Brad Dawson’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Evan Browne with 48 seconds left in the half.
On first down, Manheim Central fumbled the ball, and Chris Drager recovered for TJ with only 17 seconds left. However, two plays later, Dawson delivered the dagger with an 8-yard run as time expired in the half.
Giegerich, who ended up with 87 rushing yards, scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Dawson completed 11 of 16 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns, plus he capped off the scoring with a 79-yard pick-6 as the Jaguars completed the 36-point rout.
• The only blemish for the WPIAL was Southern Columbia beating Rochester in the final installment of their incredible championship game rivalry, where the District 7 Rams and District 4 Tigers met five times.
The Rams won in 1998, 2000 and 2001 while the Tigers finally picked up a win in the 2002 finals.
It was all Southern Columbia on this Hershey afternoon as the Tigers cruised to a 35-0 shutout win.
The Tigers scored a pair of first-quarter touchdowns and added one in the second to take a commanding 21-0 lead into the locker room.
Two more touchdowns in the third quarter marked the third state title game in 2004 to go to the mercy rule in the second half.
The stats showed total domination by Southern Columbia, which had the edge in first downs (19-5), rushing yards (398-70) and total yards (432-81). Rochester also turned the ball over four times.
Tigers quarterback Dan Latorre rushed for 150 yards and four touchdowns while also passing for 34 yards. Teammate Henry Hynoski ran for 132 yards.
Brent Whiteleather led the Rams with 49 yards on 18 carries while quarterback Cory Schleyer finished 2 of 11 passing for only 11 yards.
The game started like every Southern Columbia game did in 2004, with the Tigers sending only 9 players on the field on the first defensive play in honor of Tarik Leghlid and Eric Barnes who died in a drowning accident that summer.
Don Rebel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Don at [email protected] or via Twitter @TheDonRebel.