West Mifflin tries to end Thomas Jefferson win streak at home
Don't blame Jimmy Wheeler and his teammates if they don't remember the last time West Mifflin won a football game at Thomas Jefferson's stadium.
They have good reason.
Few had been born in 1994 when West Mifflin last beat its nearby rival in Jefferson Hills, an 18-year span the Titans will try to end Friday night. The Big 9 champion will be decided when No. 3 West Mifflin (8-0, 7-0) visits No. 2 Thomas Jefferson (8-0, 7-0) at Jaguars Stadium.
As the only undefeated teams left in Class AAA, the winner almost certainly also will receive the WPIAL's No. 1 seed when playoff pairings are decided Monday.
“I told my kids that this is what it's all about; being in games like this,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said. “This is why you play high school football.”
The last time both rivals were undefeated entering their final-week matchup was 2005, and West Mifflin won, 28-15, at West Mifflin.
However, this time it's at TJ, and West Mifflin isn't the only visitor to find the Jaguars' stadium unwelcoming. Thomas Jefferson has won 44 consecutive games on its home field.
The Jaguars' last loss there was a 2004 nonconference game against Gateway.
Since then, Thomas Jefferson has won 36 regular-season games and eight first-round playoff matchups at its stadium. That streak isn't due to the setting, West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo said, but rather the home team playing there.
West Mifflin visited four times during that stretch, losing 17-7 in 2004, 52-7 in 2006, 42-7 in 2008 and 31-12 in 2010.
“I don't think the stadium had a lot to do with it,” Braszo said. “They've just always had good teams.”
West Mifflin arrives this year with its own confidence. The Titans won 27-14 a year ago when they met undefeated Thomas Jefferson in Week 9. Because West Mifflin already had a loss, the two finished tied atop the Big 9 with 6-1 records.
The Titans also arrive with Wheeler second in the WPIAL in rushing. The junior has 1,543 yards and 19 touchdowns on 163 carries. Wheeler and quarterback Derrick Fulmore lead an offense that averages 40.8 points. Fulmore rushed for three touchdowns in last week's 35-7 victory over Trinity, and Wheeler scored twice.
“(Wheeler) hits the hole going as fast or faster than any back I can remember,” Cherpak said of the 5-foot-9 first-year starter. “You want to try to contain him, so he can't get that head of steam.”
Thomas Jefferson quarterback Joe Carroll leads the WPIAL with 31 touchdown passes, including 20 to wideout Zach Schademan. The seniors, who connected twice in last week's 49-8 victory over Uniontown, have rarely played beyond halftime. But Cherpak said the running game will be important against West Mifflin.
“You can't be one-dimensional,” he said. “If you are they'll shut it down.”
Only Thomas Jefferson (44.8) has averaged more points this season than West Mifflin in Class AAA. The Jaguars have outscored opponents 358-74, slightly better than West Mifflin's 326-82 edge.
“It's important that our defense plays really well and try to keep them off the field,” Braszo said. “I don't think we can get into a shooting match with them.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.