Belle Vernon topped Thomas Jefferson to win Big 9, but more is at stake in semifinals
After Belle Vernon defeated Thomas Jefferson, 21-17, on Oct. 13, Leopards coach Matt Humbert talked to his players about the big picture.
He wanted them to enjoy the win but told them bigger things were ahead.
At the same time Humbert was talking with his group, TJ coach Bill Cherpak had a long conversation with senior wide receiver Garret Fairman outside the team's locker room.
“Garret is my go-to guy,” Cherpak said. “We talked about putting this game behind us and focus on the bigger prize.”
That prize for both teams is the WPIAL title.
One of the Big 9 Conference rivals will get a chance to play for that title.
They will square off at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Baldwin in the semifinals with a trip to Heinz Field and the WPIAL finals on the line.
The winner will face South Fayette or Montour on Nov. 18.
“We're still in the process, and we're heading in the right direction,” Humbert said. “Taking it to the next level is getting to Heinz Field.”
In the first meeting, conference champion Belle Vernon (10-0) used three big offensive plays to score three touchdowns and relied on a defense that turned TJ mistakes into points.
“We made some crucial errors, and they made the plays when they had to,” Cherpak said. “We turned the ball over, and they put it in the end zone. We made a lot of mental errors that showed up on the game film that you didn't see on the field.”
Belle Vernon sophomore quarterback Jared Hartman tossed two touchdown passes, and Mason Pascoe darted 52 yards for the game's first score.
“I don't know if we need to play a lot better,” Humbert said. “Our defense played solidly. We were stout in the run game, and we didn't break in the pass game.
“Offensively, we were able to capitalize on the opportunities we had. We were able to complete some passes and able to hit them with a couple big runs. We weren't as dominant as we wanted up front. We played adequately.”
The reason Belle Vernon wasn't as dominant in the trenches is because of the talent along TJ's defensive line: Pitt recruits Devin Danielson and Noah Palmer, as well as Logan Burnsworth. Humbert called them the best unit in the WPIAL.
Belle Vernon's offense had double-digit negative plays against Thomas Jefferson (9-1), the two-time defending WPIAL champion.
“Early on, we had to change some things to account for Devin Danielson,” Humbert said. “Once we got back to some of our base stuff, it quelled it a little bit.”
Cherpak said he doesn't expect many changes.
“It's going to be a little different, but when it all comes down to it, we want to run the ball and they want to run the ball,” Cherpak said. “We like to play good defense; they play good defense. Two kind of similar teams: they do it in a different fashion than we do with more of a spread.
“We have to make sure in all areas of the game (offense, defense and special teams) we're on point. If we do that, we'll put ourselves in a good position to win.”
Thomas Jefferson sophomore quarterback Shane Stump threw two interceptions, and TJ lost two fumbles in the first meeting. Stump also mishandled the snap on consecutive plays during a drive that resulted in a field goal.
Stump completed 15 of 34 passes for 205 yards, including 11 to Garret Fairman for 137 yards. Running back Justin Vigna rushed for 147 yards on 25 carries. But that game is history. Now the focus is Friday night.
“There is much more at stake this time, no doubt about it,” Cherpak said. “The conference is nice, but getting an opportunity to play for the WPIAL championship is at stake. We'll be ready.”