Thomas Jefferson, Central Valley have Heinz Field in sight
Both have developed reputations as football powerhouses in WPIAL Class AAA.
Thomas Jefferson (11-0), the No. 2 seed, has played in the semifinals 14 times in the past 15 seasons.
No. 3 Central Valley (10-1), a relative newcomer in Class AAA, has lost in the semifinals the past two years since winning the WPIAL title in 2010 — its initial season following the merger of Center and Monaca high schools.
The Big Nine Conference champion Jaguars and Parkway Conference runner-up Warriors will meet for just the second time at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Chartiers Valley.
“They're really good; they're so athletic. They're the best team I've seen on film this year,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said. “All of their skill players — their receivers, their running backs, their quarterback, their defensive backs — are really good and super athletic and super fast. They just do everything well.”
At stake Friday is a berth in the WPIAL finals at Heinz Field against the winner of the semifinal matchup between No. 1 West Allegheny (11-0) and No. 4 Franklin Regional (10-1).
“TJ wants to impose its will on other teams,” Central Valley coach Mark Lyons said. “We've got to stand that initial surge, settle into what we do and let them know this isn't going to be a pushover like they're used to.”
Thomas Jefferson rallied for a 23-14 quarterfinal win over a gritty Highlands squad last week. Senior multipurpose athlete Chase Winovich willed the Jaguars to their 22nd victory in their past 23 games.
Winovich, a Michigan linebacker recruit, rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Winovich has run for 842 yards, averaging 10.1 yards per carry, and passed for 212 yards.
“Defensively, we've got to make Winovich earn his yards,” Lyons said. “I'm not so sure he's had to grind out a full game.”
Thomas Jefferson owns the No. 1 offense (40.9 ppg) and defense (6.4 ppg) in Class AAA.
The Jaguars have outscored the opposition 450-70 and have posted five shutouts, including a 39-0 victory over Hampton in a WPIAL first- round game.
“Their defense does a good job of creating negative plays,” Lyons said. “I can live with the 2-yard or 3-yard runs, but you can't have minus-6 or minus-8. That puts you behind the sticks too much. We've got to sustain drives.”
Central Valley defeated Mars, 35-21, last week behind junior Jordan Whitehead, a 6-foot, 180-pound running back who rushed for 100 yards and three touchdowns.
Whitehead, a Division I recruit, caught a 6-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter, took the second half's opening kickoff 92 yards for a score and sprinted 74 yards for another touchdown in the third quarter.
“He's phenomenal. He's the best player I've seen this year,” Cherpak said.
Whitehead, with 622 yards, 10 scores and a 9.4 rushing average, and senior running back JaQuan Pennington (5-8, 155), with 685 yards, seven scores and 7.1 rushing average, are the Warriors' main impact players.
Ray Fisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.