Top seeds Clairton, Thomas Jefferson have challenging road to final
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Clairton and Thomas Jefferson, the respective No. 1 seeds in the upcoming Class A and Class AAA WPIAL playoffs, find themselves with difficult draws to Championship Friday at Heinz Field.
They remain, of course, favorites to add to their legacies.
Clairton will be looking for a fifth consecutive WPIAL championship. Should the Bears claim another title at Heinz Field, they will have won 60 straight games, setting a new Pennsylvania record.
“I know that our players are really confident,” Clairton coach Tom Nola said. “And, of course, our fans are always extremely confident.”
What about the coach?
“You always get nervous this time of year,” Nola said. “But yeah, I'm pretty confident, too.”
Clairton (9-0), which will play Frazier (7-2) in the first round Friday, struggled in its season opener against Chartiers-Houston before rolling through its schedule with ease, outscoring its opponents 431-62. Many members of the Clairton faction at the Green Tree Doubletree on Monday night were furious that Brentwood and Monessen — the second and third place teams in the Black Hills Conference — found themselves on the same side of the bracket as the Bears. Brentwood is the No. 8 seed and could face Clairton in the quarterfinals.
Monessen, meanwhile, is the No. 4 seed and could be waiting for the Bears in the semifinals.
Many on Clairton's coaching staff believe Monessen is the second best team in Class A.
“I couldn't believe when I saw both of those teams on our side,” Nola said. “Those are both really, really good teams. I wasn't expecting that. But, you know, you see things that surprise you every year.”
Also on Clairton's side of the bracket are a Springdale team that historically gives Nola's team fits and Neshannock, an explosive offensive team, which was given the No. 13 seed despite being a co-conference winner.
“It's never easy,” Nola said. “And we aren't expecting this to be easy. We'll have to go through a lot of good teams.”
Clairton hasn't lost since the season-opener in 2009 against Laurel and hasn't lost a WPIAL playoff game since the 2007 semifinals against Springdale.
Thomas Jefferson is another school with a remarkable amount of success.
The Jaguars (9-0), coming off an undefeated season and a feel-good victory in a Week 9 showdown against West Mifflin, are hungry to claim their first WPIAL title since 2008.
This TJ team isn't quite as experienced as most of coach Bill Cherpak's teams, but the coach doesn't mind.
“If we get to Heinz Field, I might worry about the lack of experience playing in that kind of a venue,” Cherpak said. “But we've got a pretty mature team. I feel good about them.”
Much like Clairton, the Jaguars did not receive an easy draw.
Pending a first-round win over No. 16 seed Hollidaysburg, TJ could have a quarterfinal meeting with No. 9 Elizabeth Forward (6-3) or No. 8 Franklin Regional (7-2). Franklin Regional historically plays TJ tough, and Elizabeth Forward nearly upset the Jaguars in a 21-19 contest earlier this season.
Class AAA powers West Allegheny and Montour also are in the bottom of TJ's draw.
“Wow,” Cherpak said, as he scanned his side of the draw.
One break for TJ, though, is that West Mifflin found itself on the other side of the bracket. Despite going 8-1, West Mifflin was surprisingly given the No. 7 seed.
“They're pretty good,” Cherpak said, “for a No. 7 seed.”
The high-powered Jaguars are pretty good, too.
But Cherpak, who is looking to claim his fifth WPIAL championship, knows the road isn't easy.
“I can honestly say that there are seven teams in Class AAA that can win this thing,” Cherpak said. “I don't know if there have ever been that many. But I feel really good about our team.”
Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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