TJ loses in semis again in stunner
For five straight years in the early part of the decade, Bill Cherpak led his team to the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals, only to lose every time.
The Jaguars finally broke the streak in 2003 and went on to advance to the championship game six consecutive years, winning four WPIAL titles.
But it appears the semifinal jinx is back.
For the second consecutive year Thomas Jefferson’s season ended a game short of Heinz Field, and for the second consecutive year the Jaguars got rocked in a semifinal game, this time by newly formed Central Valley, 42-24, at North Allegheny’s Newman Stadium.
Central Valley (9-3), a first-year merger of Center and Monaca, became the first school to advance to the title game in the first year of existence since Sto-Rox 44 years ago.
Central Valley will take on Montour, a 35-14 winner over Mars, for the Class AAA title next Saturday at Heinz Field.
For Thomas Jefferson (11-2), it is another premature ending to a season.
“They played with the emotion like we played with last week,” said Cherpak, who lost only his 32nd game in his 16 years as TJ coach. “It is all my fault. We were flat for some reason. I didn’t do something right to get us ready.”
The Jaguars made numerous uncharacteristic mistakes that usually are reserved for the team TJ is playing against.
Instead, it was the Jaguars who dropped a sure-fire interception that turned into a long reception for the Warriors; it was the punter dropping the snap then getting his punt blocked and returned for a touchdown; it was not wrapping up a running back in a pile of defenders and letting him escape for an 80-yard touchdown run; and it was dropping a wide-open pass in the end zone for a would-be touchdown.
“We made mistakes that we normally force teams to make against us,” Cherpak said. “We just don’t make mistakes like that. You just can’t give up easy touchdowns in a game like this and we gave up plenty.”
Oh yeah, and you let a little-known sophomore Robert Foster catch three touchdown passes, run 80 yards for another and seal the game with an interception.
“Coach told me to come out here and play my hardest and that’s what I did,” Foster said. “I just wanted to make it to Heinz. That’s what I wanted to do for CV.”
Foster finished with 91 yards rushing, 57 yards receiving, a 50-yard interception return and numerous long kick and punt returns to give the Warriors great field position all night long.
“I would’ve never have envisioned giving up 42 points and four touchdowns to one kid,” Cherpak said. “That’s ridiculous. That kid made some plays and ran hard but he’s not Randy Moss.”
TJ got 184 yards passing and three touchdowns from Dom Presto and 110 yards rushing from fullback Dylan Breisinger, mostly out of necessity.
TJ’s top two tailbacks Ryan Ruffing and T.J. Matrascia left the game with injuries. The Jags also were without inside linebacker Bruno Natter for the majority of the game with a foot injury.
“It all seemed to pile up at once,” Cherpak said.
And it happened early for the Jags.
Thomas Jefferson made two critical first-half mistakes that led to a pair of Central Valley touchdowns.
The first came near the end of the first quarter when a sure interception turned into a 32-yard catch by Central Valley’s Dominic Belcastro. Then on a 3rd-and-12, Matt Bradford threw a quick screen to Foster, who broke a tackle and scored from 27 yards out to give the Warriors a 14-3 lead.
The critical one came a little later in the second quarter when TJ punter Mike Wainauskus dropped the snap, then had his punt blocked by Dillon Trasport, who picked up the ball and scored to make it 21-10.
“We respect TJ and know about their history but we were going to come in and play our football game,” Central Valley coach Mark Lyons said. “Our football game is to be aggressive and come here to win a football game.”
Central Valley opened a 28-10 lead early in the third on Foster’s amazing 80-yard touchdown run. After the two swapped touchdowns to make it 35-17, TJ made one last run.
Presto threw a touchdown pass to Nick Raimondi to make it 35-24 and then recovered an onside kick and drove down the 11-yard line with six minutes left.
“TJ wasn’t going to go away,” Lyons said. “Thirteen years in the semifinals, they are not going to just say here’s the game. You have to take it away and keep making plays.”
Facing a fourth down, Presto threw a pass into the end zone to a wide open Jacob Bonder, who dropped the ball.
“If you don’t make plays in games like these you don’t win,” Cherpak said. “We just didn’t make the plays and they did and they beat us.”