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Thomas Jefferson looking to stay in Big 9 title race against Belle Vernon

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
Thomas Jefferson's Dan Matalula intercepts a pass over Elizabeth Forward's Matt Hermesmann in the first half on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Thomas Jefferson's Dan Matalula intercepts a pass over Elizabeth Forward's Matt Hermesmann in the first half on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.

These high school football teams are worlds apart. But back in the day — not really that long ago, though — Thomas Jefferson had its hands full against Belle Vernon.

Do you think Aaron Krepps had something to do with the Leopards' past success?

During his days as a multi-faceted player at Belle Vernon, Krepps helped the program post back-to-back, 11-1 records, narrowly misfiring on WPIAL championships in 1999 and 2000.

“Aaron was one of the best players I've ever coached against,” longtime Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said. “He's doing a good job coaching that team now. They lost their tailback and their quarterback, but they've still won some games. We need to be ready to play.”

Cherpak and surging No. 2 Thomas Jefferson (6-0, 5-0) play host to Krepps and injury-stricken Belle Vernon (2-4, 2-3) in a Class AAA Big Nine Conference game on Friday night.

Another Thomas Jefferson victory would impact at least two items of note.

First — and likely more important to Cherpak — the Jaguars would tie No. 3 West Mifflin for the conference lead with two regular-season games remaining. The two teams meet in the finale Oct. 25 at West Mifflin (6-0, 6-0), which plays a nonconference game Friday at Indiana.

Also, Cherpak would inch closer to the revered 200-victory mark as a coach in the WPIAL. His record is 197-37-0, all at Thomas Jefferson, where he began coaching in 1995.

Only 21 names currently appear on the WPIAL list of 200 career victories, and just four coaches are active.

Upper St. Clair's Jim Render is the all-time leader with 370, while Joe Hamilton of Blackhawk is second with 337; Woodland Hills' George Novak is fourth with 272; and McKeesport's George Smith has moved into a tie for 19th with 203 after returning to the sideline this season to lead the Tigers to a 6-0 mark following a three-year absence.

Predictably, Cherpak isn't watching the coaching list. He's more concerned with coaching his team. Judging from the lopsided scores in favor of the Jaguars, something's going right.

Thomas Jefferson is led on offense by running back Austin Kemp, who has rushed for 781 yards (9.1 average), and on defense by senior linebacker Chase Winovich, a Michigan recruit.

The Jaguars are averaging 44.8 points per game and are yielding an average of just 8.3 following a 58-21 rout of Laurel Highlands on Friday in game that saw the Mustangs score two fourth-quarter touchdowns after Thomas Jefferson had built a 51-point lead.

“The big thing that we concentrate on is to try to play to our level all the time and not focus on the other team,” Cherpak said. “We've played teams that we have overmatched, but we still need to play the game and watch how we execute. We just want to try to focus on our level of our play as opposed to who we're playing. For the most part, the focus has been good. These guys always play hard.”

Krepps, who went on to become a two-time NCAA Division III All-American as a wide receiver/kick returner at Washington & Jefferson, is trying to revive his high school alma mater in an effort to emulate those glory days when he was a player at Belle Vernon.

The losses of quarterback Travis Snyder and running back Anthony Levis to season-ending knee injuries has forced Belle Vernon to use inexperienced players in those key positions.

Freshman Mike Fine passed for 156 yards and sophomore Derek Verkleeren rushed for 160 on Friday to help Belle Vernon end a four-game skid with a 28-0 victory over Trinity.

“It's a step in the right direction,” Krepps said. “Obviously, to win is a very positive thing. It's something to build off and helps to reiterate our stance in the playoff hunt.”

Krepps is well aware of Thomas Jefferson's success with Cherpak at the controls. He referred to the Jaguars as “the cream of the crop when it comes to our conference.”

Judging from the results, you could say that TJ is among the best in the WPIAL.

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