“This is probably the most fun year of coaching I’ve had.”
It physically pains me to start a story with a quote because everything I have been taught tells me not to, but this quote from an eight-time WPIAL Champion in his 25th season with Thomas Jefferson is remarkable.
The quote was born from a conversation about his team’s week of preparation for their PIAA Class 4A Quarterfinal game against three-time defending champion Cathedral Prep.
The senior-laden Thomas Jefferson roster lost to Cathedral Prep as freshmen and sophomores, and didn’t get the chance to play them last season when they lost in the WPIAL Championship to South Fayette.
With one more chance against Cathedral Prep – and more importantly: a chance at a PIAA Championship – Thomas Jefferson tried to keep things relaxed throughout the week. Several players called it relaxed, others called it focused, but the attitude was the same for everyone.
“All year, this was the most relaxed practice week we’ve had,” said senior Dan Deabner. “We didn’t think it was a state playoff game, we just made it like any other week, like we were 0-0. We didn’t care who the opponent was, we just worried about us.”
But the Jaguars were calm, cool and collected, which was evident even in warmups.
As the teams lined up 20-yards apart to run through offensive sets, the speakers at Martorelli Stadium played the usual lineup of ACDC and other songs everyone knows the words to.
When ‘I can make your hands clap’ by Fitz and the Tantrums came on, all of the Thomas Jefferson players not running through plays clapped along with the chorus.
“Last night, we were practicing, and they’re dancing around, I said to our one coach ‘they’re either really ready to play, or they’re overlooking,” said Cherpak. “But that’s the type of kids they are. They prepare hard, but they’re enjoying it. They just don’t want it to end.”
Thomas Jefferson began the game with a 15-play 76-yard drive that culminated with a one-yard touchdown run from Dylan Mallozzi. The Jaguars opened with five straight running plays and ran it 12 times on the opening drive.
Cathedral Prep grabbed the lead early in the second quarter on a 27-yard field goal, but the Jaguars responded on the next drive with a 5-play 65-yard drive to put the Jaguars ahead at the half.
As the teams prepared for the second half, quarterback Shane Stump was head-bobbing along with the Thomas Jefferson band as he warmed up.
“At the end of the third quarter, our quarterback is over here singing ‘Sweet Caroline’, I’m like what the hell is going on. But they were just so focused, I think nothing bothered them,” said Cherpak.
Cathedral Prep opened the second half with a field-goal drive to make the score 14-13, but the Jaguars again responded on the next drive with a touchdown, this time from Shane Stump and the Jaguars stood up and took down a team that has given them fits over the past five seasons.
Cathedral Prep defeated Thomas Jefferson in the state playoffs in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and has won five PIAA Championships since 2000.
Thomas Jefferson possessed the ball twice in the second half, scoring touchdowns on both – touchdown runs from Stump and Mallozzi – while the Ramblers were held to just three points.
“This is incredible,” said Deabner. “I’ve been dreaming of this since I started my freshmen year, we didn’t get it done. We didn’t get it done sophomore year, junior year we didn’t get to play them. This year, we came in really hopeful for this game that we were going to come out with a win.”
“We kind of want a balance. You don’t want a week of practice where it’s work-work-work-work-work,” said Stump. “You’re just preparing for this really good football team and you’re getting into this mentality they’re going to pound the ball on us. We want to keep it lighthearted; we want to keep it so we can enter every game with some confidence, and a little bit of swagger so we can make plays.”
The 13-points Thomas Jefferson surrendered to Cathedral Prep was a season high.
That’s an amazing stat by itself, but it’s even better when, arguably, the most dominant team in the state in Class 4A was held to just one touchdown.
The stats were pretty much even for both teams throughout the night, but coach Bill Cherpak was able to pinpoint one key factor in the game.
“We scored when we were in the red zone, and we held them to field goals,” said Cherpak. “Last time we played them, we got stopped two or three times in the red zone, and that was the difference in the game.
“They were first-and-goal at the eight, we held them to a field goal. I would have never guessed we would hold that team to one touchdown.”
Cathedral Prep did rush for 208 yards in the loss and racked up 279 yards of total offense, but, surprisingly, were unable to punch it in when they got down near the goal line.
The Ramblers fumbled two consecutive snaps to start their fourth-and-goal possession and on a third-and-goal from the 18 a short run was accompanied by a holding penalty.
Thomas Jefferson declined the penalty, forcing Cathedral Prep to either take the field goal or go for a long conversion attempt.
“We had some pressure; the key was to not let them have easy throws. Just wide open, down the field, and we did that. We disguised a lot of stuff well, to where they weren’t exactly sure what we were in. We had linebackers covering receivers. Everyone made plays.”
OFFENSIVE LINE SURGE
It was another strong night on the ground for Dylan Mallozzi. The senior running back rushed for 166 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns, carrying the Jaguars into the PIAA quarterfinals.
Mallozzi has been a workhorse all season, but the offensive line has always been the catalyst.
Thomas Jefferson rushed for 224 yards in the win. In 43 rushing attempts, the Jaguars were stopped for negative yards only once.
“We just wanted to pound the ball,” said Mallozzi. “We knew they haven’t played a real physical team all year, so we wanted to be physical.”
Thomas Jefferson scored on drives of 15 plays, five plays and 13 plays before Mallozzi capped the night with a 34-yard run in the fourth quarter.
“They haven’t played a team like us,” said Stump. “They haven’t played a physical team with a physical line, which we have obviously. The game plan was just dominate them off the ball. Our line did that all night.”