Big 9 rival Ringgold to challenge Thomas Jefferson in season opener
Even for Thomas Jefferson, which has won 17 conference championships, four WPIAL titles and three PIAA crowns over the past 19 years, Friday night's scheduled home football game against Ringgold figures to be a tough opener.
Just ask longtime Jaguars coach Bill Cherpak, the engineer of all that success.
“They're good, and they were good last year,” said Cherpak, whose team could post the 400th win in program history Friday.
Ringgold also represents a Big 9 Conference opener for Thomas Jefferson in the season's first game — not a popular idea with the TJ coach.
“Since we went to three conferences with nine teams (in Class AAA), we've had a conference opener for two years now,” Cherpak said. “That can be tough for teams, and it's especially tough this year for us, with a new quarterback.
“You can practice all you want, but you want to see the kids in game situations, and sometimes it's better to play someone outside the conference first. We've played some out-of-state teams in the past to start off.”
Thomas Jefferson is coming off a 11-1 season, winning the Big 9 with a perfect mark of 8-0. But Ringgold wasn't that far off, finishing 7-3 overall and 6-2 in the Big 9. And the Rams return dual-threat quarterback Nico Law, who combined to pass and rush for more than 2,600 yards.
“He is so dynamic,” Cherpak said, “and he can throw the ball. He's a top-caliber, highly-ranked player. With him in there, and then the new coach, you don't know what you're going to get.”
Nick Milchovich, the former Peters Township coach, takes over at Ringgold, hoping the Rams can keep pace with Thomas Jefferson long enough to have a shot at winning.
“Of course, it's a big game for us,” he said. “They've been the standard in the conference forever, it seems.”
But, he added, “I think it's more about ourselves. Really, we've been stressing being as strong as possible and as aerobically in shape as we can be. TJ just likes to wear you down. We have to be in shape if we're going to compete, and I think we're in good shape and we're ready.”
While Thomas Jefferson returns 1,000-yard rusher Austin Kemp, the Jaguars are starting over in other key areas.
About that new quarterback. Cherpak wasn't saying which inexperienced candidate — Julian Metro or Bobby Kelley — would be in the opening-day lineup,
Gone is Chase Winovich, the Michigan recruit who shared the quarterbacking duties in 2013 with the also-departed Christian Breisinger and dominated at times at linebacker, from where he was recruited at the college level.
Also among the players to have moved on from TJ was wide receiver Dalton Dietrich, who had 43 receptions, including seven for touchdowns.
Led by the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Kemp, TJ returns plenty of talented players, though — among them wide receiver Frankie Langan and tight ends Russell Siess and Corey Payne, who is trying to bounce back from multiple knee surgeries.
“We feel like every year we should be in it for the conference title,” Cherpak said. “We've been fortunate to be able to do that, so I guess with the success we've had, I don't want to call it a burden. But we know for some teams, we're a big game. I guess our kids feed off that and feel they have to carry that tradition with them.”
Ringgold would love nothing more this week than to make a statement against the highly regarded Jaguars. Law is a player the Rams continue to build around. He completed 93 of 180 passes for 1,494 yards and 14 touchdowns and also rushed 116 times for 1,110 yards and 15 touchdowns for Ringgold in 2013.
“I told our guys he is the most important person on their team,” Cherpak said. “Anybody would be out of their mind to not use Law and try to be successful.”
Junior running back Chacar Berry will complement Law as Ringgold's lead running back after gaining 563 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns as a sophomore.
An experienced group of wide receivers that includes seniors Jake Gerard, Brandon Thomas, Mayson Atkinson and Luke Baldesberger is expected to make up for the loss of Alan Pritchett, who caught 30 passes a year ago as a senior.
“It should be a good game,” Milchovich said. “If we can stand in there and take their best, we should be there at the end.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.