Playoff atmosphere permeates at BVA
ROSTRAVER TOWNSHIP - The WPIAL high school football playoffs are nine weeks away, but one will hardly notice the difference when Belle Vernon Area and Thomas Jefferson battle Friday at Jim Weir Stadium in their season opener.
For the third straight year the Leps start the season against the Jaguars. The teams have split the last two seasons with BVA winning in 2000, 24-20, and TJ taking it last year, 20-13, at Ringgold.
Another close game could be expected in the 7:30 p.m. contest as both teams are coming off playoff years.
The Jaguars went further of the two, making it to the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals before losing to Hopewell, 24-21. It was the third consecutive season they lost in the semifinals.
The Leps, meanwhile, bowed out in the first round to WPIAL and PIAA champion West Allegheny, 27-7.
Though looking at last year's teams may not be the right approach since the top players graduated.
TJ lost versatile tailback Nate Starrett, an eight touchdown guy who had 598 yards on the ground and 421 through the air, and receiver Nick Cherish, who had a team-leading 33 catches for 503 yards and four touchdowns. What this means is players like senior tailback Jon Drager and junior quarterback Pete Winovich have to step up.
Following a season where Drager ran 93 times for 409 yards and eight touchdowns, and Winovich threw for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns, head coach Bill Cherpak thinks they are on their way.
"We're coming in with an established quarterback and last year we didn't have that," said Cherpak, whose team went 9-3 overall and 5-1 in Big Seven conference games last year. "Drager is pretty much our do everything player."
Last year against the Leps, Drager demonstrated those all-around abilities by helping to limit their offense to 18 yards and had a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown. That came after he threw a 61-yard halfback option pass for another score.
BVA head coach Jesse Cramer knows he has to keep an eye on the Cougars top players.
"They lost a couple of key players, but they put a couple other kids in there," he said. "They have a nice size quarterback who's got a good arm."
A year ago Cherpak had similar concerns with the Leps' Aaron Krepps.
Krepps, who graduated in the spring, was the team's starting quarterback and top rusher. He combined for more than 1,100 yards in total offense and 11 touchdowns.
Against the Jaguars, Krepps was limited to 28 yards and held without a touchdown. The offense was also shutout, managing just 90 yards.
Senior quarterback Derek Brletich leads BVA's offensive attack this year. He will be helped by a veteran line in guards Pat Biddle and Joe Biondo) and tackles Adam Freet and Chad Giannini.
The backfield is just as experienced with seniors Andrew Bell (509 rushing yards) and Scot Batton (369 rushing yards).
"My offense is not a wide open type of offense," said Cramer, who graduated from TJ. "I like to use four or five running backs, kind of spread it around a little."
With all that power, it was the defense that scored both touchdowns against the Jaguars last season. Senior Elikalee Fuller had one on a fumble recovery and junior Keenan Evans had a 45-yard interception.
These were two of five Jaguar turnovers in the game, something Cherpak is not expecting this time around.
"It should be a much cleaner played game," he said. "Hopefully, if our offense sputters at all our defense can keep us in the game.
"Us and Belle Vernon is a huge rivalry. The rivalry is more because of the success of both programs."
Cramer couldn't agree more.
"(The rivalry) was build through the 70s," he said. "Last year was a sloppy game for both teams.
"Not too many things were done right. Hopefully, this year will be a different story."