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PITTSBURGH — Ten years ago, Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak called on an old friend for help.
Cherpak needed a defensive coordinator and he decided to call his former coach at Steel Valley Jack Giran. Second.
“I was retired, but he asked me if I could come and coach and I said you have to ask my wife first,” said Giran. “He said we already did. I turned around and she was laughing. They were at least smart enough to ask her first.”
And so, for the past 10 years or so (neither Cherpak nor Garin could remember if it was 2008 or 2009), once the season starts, Giran comes up to Pittsburgh three days a week to prep with Cherpak.
The other four days are spent in Florida with a few precious moments away from football, but most of his time is spent preparing and watching film, which Garin — who won WPIAL Championships in 1988 and 1989 with Steel Valley — said is a labor of love.
The defense for Thomas Jefferson has been great during this run of championships under Cherpak, but through 13 games this year’s defense has been one of the best ever.
With Saturday’s seven points begrudgingly surrendered to Belle Vernon, the Thomas Jefferson defense has allowed 47 points, an average of 3.6 per game.
That’s the second best in the WPIAL in the past 17 seasons, right behind the 2017 Aliquippa team that allowed 3.4 points per game and in front of the 2009 Clairton team that allowed 3.8 points per game.
It has to be mentioned perhaps the greatest WPIAL defense of all time was the 1987 North Hills Indians, who allowed 20 points all season, all when the defensive reserves were in. In other cool WPIAL history notes, the 1945 Donora team did not allow a point all season.
Against Belle Vernon, Thomas Jefferson allowed 60 yards of total offense – 13 on the ground and 47 through the air. The Leopards were limited to just eight first down and averaged 1.5 yards per play.
Belle Vernon punted on three of their possessions, turned it over on downs three times and threw an interception to go along with a touchdown in the third quarter.
“We made some changes, some adjustments in coverage, it really helped because a couple times Shane (Stump) was able to come up and make some plays, whereas we didn’t have that coverage last time,” said Cherpak.
Stump’s maturation at the safety position has been a catalyst to take this defense from good to great.
“We were skeptical even last year because you don’t want to get your quarterback hurt,” said Garin. “He was feeling his way last year. This year, he’s been as aggressive a safety I’ve ever coached. If someone doesn’t get him as a quarterback, they’re going to get one hell of a safety.
“He doesn’t have that blazing speed, but man he comes up and he’ll hit you. Every game he seems to get more and more comfortable. He has a good feel for the game because of his job at quarterback. He figures it out pretty quick.”
The entire secondary played well as Leopards quarterback Jared Hartman completed just seven passes and threw an interception to Ian Hansen in the third quarter, at the time, preserving the shutout.
“There’s a couple things that changed this year, one is Shane’s play at safety, and two is the way Logan (Danielson) and our defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage. Teams are not able to single-block and get on linebackers. If they drop back to pass, the quarterback is getting hit,” said Cherpak. “Everyone knows their role; everyone knows their job every single week. Every game plan for every game is spot on, it’s perfect. It puts us in a position to make plays,” said Stump.
Cherpak said he and Garin perfect tendencies, formations and every possible permutation of Belle Vernon’s offense. Cherpak estimated they spent 20-30 hours preparing for this game on the defensive side.
When asked how this year’s defense ranks for him among some of his others, Cherpak smiled and said:
“We’ll tell you in three weeks.”