Undersized Highlands braces for undefeated Thomas Jefferson
Highlands' leaders on both sides of the football — quarterback Blake Leri and inside linebackers Zach Mazur, Allan Cratsenberg and Weston Bernath — all hesitated for a moment before acknowledging that the Golden Rams are underdogs in their WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinal against unbeaten Thomas Jefferson.
Golden Rams coach Sam Albert skipped the pause and cut straight to the point.
“You watch them, and they bully opponents,” Albert said. “I hope it's going to be a slugfest, but it's David versus Goliath, so I hope we have that sling with the rocks.”
There are several reasons to regard No. 2 seed Thomas Jefferson (10-0) as the favorite in Friday's game at Chartiers Valley. The Jaguars, semifinalists 14 times in the last 15 seasons, have more playoff experience, larger players and more star power than No. 7 Highlands (7-3), which is in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2008. But the Golden Rams possess confidence in their ability to grind out a win.
“They're a big team, they're physical and they have a couple athletes we have to watch out for, but it's nothing that we haven't seen before,” Leri said. “They have a slight edge on us, but if we play the way we know how to play, I think we can make some noise.”
Said Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak: “The one thing (about Highlands) that, I think, stands out is, they're scrappy and relentless. They play so hard and fly to the ball. ... Our kids see it on film. You can tell just watching them, how tough they are. This is the kind of game where the size doesn't matter.”
A week ago in a 24-19 win, Highlands humbled a New Castle offense that entered the playoffs averaging 36.8 points per game. The defense limited the damage done by wide receiver and defensive back Malik Hooker, an Ohio State recruit who finished with two receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown as well as three carries for 4 yards.
The next round of the playoffs brings another high-scoring team with a major Division I recruit. The Jaguars, whose ground-oriented offense averages 42.7 points per game, get most of their yards from 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior running back Austin Kemp and 6-4, 220-pound senior quarterback Chase Winovich, who has committed to Michigan as a linebacker.
Kemp has gained 1,048 yards and scored 17 touchdowns on 129 carries. Winovich has rushed for 642 yards and 12 touchdowns on 55 carries.
“(A run-heavy team), that's what we like to see, because that's what we're good at, stopping the run as a defense,” Mazur said. “We're comfortable seeing that.”
Most of Thomas Jefferson's passing yards come from the team's other quarterback, 6-1, 165-pound senior Christian Breisinger, who has completed 34 of 63 pass attempts for 687 yards and nine touchdowns.
All of TJ's ball carriers benefit from the Jaguars' massive offensive line, which includes Mat Nagy (6-3, 255), Garrett Pahanish (5-10, 230), Jake Guinn (6-1, 255), Cole Costy (6-2, 265) and Jason Inks (6-5, 305).
“The only way we can simulate that is if we have Big O, Duffey and Beau dress in practice,” Albert said, referring to assistants Matt Ostrowski, John Duffey and Beau Elliott.
Highlands will counter with its own ground attack, led by junior Elijah Jackson (1,244 yards and 11 touchdowns on 169 carries) and bolstered by bulkier ball carriers Cratsenberg, Mazur and Bernath.
The Golden Rams' ground attack will encounter a Thomas Jefferson defense that has shut out five opponents and allowed more than 10 points just twice.
Highlands and Thomas Jefferson share stylistic commonalities. The Golden Rams believe their task is to prove their toughness and guile trump the Jaguars' more tangible advantages.
“Like Coach Albert always says, ‘The team that hits the hardest the longest wins the game,' ” Bernath said. “So, that's the plan.”