MONROEVILLE, Pa. — Facing off against a team from a higher division, Thomas Jefferson head coach Bill Cherpak knew his team would be in for a challenge, reigning state champions or not.
In its first game of the season, Thomas Jefferson went on the road to face Class-5A Gateway at Antimarino Stadium on Friday, and Cherpak knew his team had a deficit when it came to matching up with the Gators athletically. What the Jaguars were able to do was dominate the line of scrimmage, play a high-risk, high-reward style of defense and deliver a 21-16 victory in an early-season classic.
“We could not match up with their skill players,” Cherpak said. “Their speed, their athleticism… instead of dropping back and covering, our coverage was our rush.”
The Gators adjusted to Cherpak’s strategy in the second half, scoring 13 straight points in the fourth quarter after going down 21-3, with quarterback Brad Birch making a number of big plays to get the Gators back into the game. In the end, the Thomas Jefferson defense made one final stop to get the victory.
“They’re a hell of a football team, they’re gonna win a lot of games,” Cherpak said. “You see how explosive they are. … I don’t think we’ll see anybody as good as they have [this season].”
In the long run, the victory over the Class-5A Gators won’t mean a ton for TJ, which is expected to be a force in defending its WPIAL Class-4A title. But Cherpak said he was able to learn something about his team’s toughness it is season opener.
“I learned how hard they played. That was a tough football game, they played hard,” Cherpak said. “They found a way to get it done. … We just feel like our line, we have good size and they’re pretty good when they come off the ball,” Cherpak said. “We want to be physical all the time. That’s our game, that’s the only reason we had a chance to win a game like this.”
“Coming out here and beating a 5A team, that’s something special,” said junior defensive end Jordan Mayer.
Cherpak said he savored the opportunity to play in front of a full crowd for the first time since 2019, and enjoyed his team’s battle with the explosive Gators.
“It was great, the whole atmosphere… it was an enjoyable game to be a part of,” Cherpak said. “Even if we’d ended up losing at the end, it was a great high school football team. Two good teams, this is why you play, to be a part of this.”