Thomas Jefferson uses defense, running game to capture WPIAL title
The old champ took back what it once owned.
Thomas Jefferson returned to Heinz Field for the first time since 2008 and ended the Parkway Conference’s dominance with a 20-7 victory over Central Valley in the WPIAL Class AAA championship Saturday night.
No. 6 Thomas Jefferson (11-2) won with a physical defense and a strong running game, traits that let it win three titles in a row from 2006-08. No. 1 seed Central Valley (11-2), the defending WPIAL champion, was trying to win a seventh consecutive title for Parkway teams, but TJ ended that run.
“We play football too,” TJ coach Bill Cherpak said. “The Parkway is a great conference. There’s no doubt about it. And it makes it even more special for us to be able to beat West Allegheny and Central Valley along the way because they’re such great programs.”
Parkway teams had won the past six WPIAL titles with Central Valley emerging as a new titan in Class AAA with titles in 2010 and ’14. West Allegheny, which lost to TJ in the quarterfinals this year, won in 2009, ’12 and ’13.
But before the Parkway’s domination, TJ owned this classification. The Jaguars won WPIAL titles in 2004, ’06, ’07 and ’08 under Cherpak, and were runner-up in 2003 and ’05. TJ also won in 1980.
Thomas Jefferson will play District 10 champion Erie Cathedral Prep in the PIAA quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Friday at Erie’s Veterans Stadium.
Central Valley’s offense ranked among the WPIAL’s best entering Saturday. The Warriors were averaging a fraction less than 50 points per game in the playoffs. Eight times this season they’d scored more than 40, with postseason wins of 59-14, 42-9 and 48-41.
Yet, Thomas Jefferson stifled them. Central Valley’s only touchdown was a third-quarter interception return by its defense.
“What were they able to do? Just about anything they wanted to do,” CV coach Mark Lyons said. “Defensively, they were a step ahead of us. They played on their toes. We just couldn’t get any momentum. We couldn’t string plays together.”
Thomas Jefferson junior Quinton Hill rushed for 141 yards on 29 carries with a 7-yard touchdown in the third quarter. TJ’s offense had 290 yards with 207 rushing. Braden Pahanish had a 57-yard first-quarter touchdown run, and quarterback Bobby Kelley threw a 9-yard score to Zane Zandier in the second.
That was enough for a Jaguars defense that had limited opponents to just 10.6 points per game this season.
Central Valley’s offense managed only 126 yards with minus-6 rushing. Among them, CV quarterback Chris Callaghan lost 37 yards on four sacks. Kyle Vreen led with 33 yards rushing.
“We just felt like we couldn’t give up big plays,” Cherpak said. “They have so many explosive athletes. We felt we had to put pressure on their quarterback. They couldn’t get the running game going.”
TJ had 10 tackles for loss with two apiece by Pahanish, Adam Staudt, Jake Giegerich and Dillon Finley. Pahanish’s both were sacks of Callaghan, who completed 15 of 34 for 132 yards with an interception. Kurt Reinstadtler had eight catches for 88 yards.
“It’s hard to play behind the sticks,” Lyons said, “and we played behind the sticks a lot.”
Central Valley had only 47 first-half yards with minus-15 rushing, and trailed 14-0 at halftime. Thomas Jefferson had 184 first-half yards.
A 57-yard touchdown run by Pahanish gave TJ a 7-0 lead 3 minutes into the first quarter. Pahanish ran up the middle, jumped through the line and outran Central Valley to the end zone. The Jaguars rushed for 126 first-half yards on 16 carries.
TJ extended its lead to 14-0 with a 9-yard touchdown catch by Zandier in the second quarter. With 2:13 until halftime, Kelley found Zandier in the end zone on fourth-and-6.
Vreen returned an interception 56 yards for a touchdown 1 minute into the third quarter, cutting TJ’s lead to 14-7. Vreen had two interceptions.
Hill added a 7-yard touchdown run in the third.