W&J defeats Waynesburg to grab PAC playoff berth
In reality, the game was secondary, but the results were monumental.
Heavy-hearted underdog Washington & Jefferson defeated previously unbeaten No. 13 Waynesburg, 31-14, before an overflow crowd of 6,000 at Waynesburg's Wiley Stadium on Saturday to claim an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs and a share of its 23rd Presidents' Athletic Conference championship.
The focus in the aftermath was on a very private postgame ceremony in which W&J coach Mike Sirianni presented the PAC championship trophy to the family of fallen teammate Tim McNerney, who was found dead on Oct. 4 in Washington, two days before the Presidents were routed at Thomas More.
“I would give back all the wins to have No. 5 standing here right now,” an emotional Sirianni said.
Since that latest loss, W&J has won four in a row, including Saturday's decisive victory that derailed Waynesburg's playoff push. The Yellow Jackets and W&J, though already in, will await word on the Division III playoff pairings, which will be released Sunday night.
“I don't care who we play,” Sirianni said. “We've played a tough schedule, some tough nonconference games. That's what the NCAA wants you to do. Hopefully, we'll be rewarded.”
Matt Bliss completed 21 of 26 passes for 251 yards and four touchdowns — three to Alex Baroffio, who had 11 catches for 139 yards — and W&J (8-2, 7-1) outclassed Waynesburg (9-1, 7-1).
“Matt saved his best game for last,” Sirianni said. “He was great. The defense was great. Awesome.”
Bliss threw touchdown passes to Baroffio of 19, 3 and 62 yards to help W&J break a 7-7 tie. The two also played together at Bethel Park High School. Afterward, they rejoiced with a celebratory fist-punch when reminded of the running back McNerney's tragic death.
“Today we did something special for our brother,” Bliss said.
McNerney, 21, a senior from Knoch High School, was beaten to death off campus near the intersection of College and Maiden streets early on Oct. 4.
Waynesburg coach Rick Shepas said the incident stirred memories of similar times during his football career. In July 2010, Waynesburg lost former Yellow Jackets player and assistant coach Mike Czerwein, from North Hills High School, who died while working at a construction site.
“All the credit goes to W&J,” Shepas said. “They've been dealing with the loss of a young football player.”
Bliss gave W&J a 7-0 lead with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Dan Lucas before Waynesburg tied it on a 5-yard touchdown run by Bertrand Ngampa, who rushed for 144 yards on 22 carries.
Two Bliss-to-Baroffio scoring passes put W&J ahead, 21-7, at halftime.
Christian Jackson's 45-yard punt return for Waynesburg pulled the Yellow Jackets within 21-14 with 5:55 left in the third quarter. But Bliss hit Baroffio on the 62-yard scoring strike, and Eric Eberle added a 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter for the Presidents, who won their ninth game in a row against Waynesburg to take a commanding 37-3 lead in the series.
Because of the circumstances, an emotionally charged Sirianni found a way to put this year's team with the school's all-time elite.
“This may upset some people because I know we had the 1922 Rose Bowl team. But this is the best team at W&J,” Sirianni said. “It shows you the type of kids they are and the type of parents they have. These guys have been through so much, they didn't blink. I think we're peaking, and we can do some damage in the NCAA playoffs.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5617.