Thomas Jefferson and Clairton are neighbors. The high schools are less than four miles apart, and they even share the same ZIP code.
There must be something in the water in that area, as the football teams from the two schools have been among the most successful in the state over the past two decades.
But neither perennial power has quite looked like itself this season. Those teams, along with fellow juggernaut Central Catholic, have found themselves in the loss column more than usual and for a change aren’t among the championship favorites in the WPIAL playoffs.
However, all three teams have seen nothing but success in recent weeks, which could be a problem for the other teams in their respective brackets. It might not be considered a huge surprise if any or all of them continue their winning ways Friday.
Central Catholic travels to Mt. Lebanon in a Class 6A semifinal, Thomas Jefferson hosts Latrobe in a Class 4A quarterfinal, and Clairton takes on Bishop Canevin at Dormont Stadium in a Class 1A quarterfinal.
Neither Central Catholic (6-4), Thomas Jefferson (7-3) nor Clairton (6-5) have been their usual dominant selves this fall. They have a combined record of 21-12. It’s the most combined losses by the teams in a season since 1999, a campaign in which they went 17-15. In turn, none of the three are seeded as highly as usual in the playoffs. Central Catholic is No. 3 in the four-team Class 6A bracket, while Thomas Jefferson is No. 3 and Clairton No. 9.
At first glance, the thought might be that none of them should be considered legitimate championship contenders, but the fact that all three have taken their games to another level recently provides hope that a title could be in the cards. It’s certainly hard to bet against any of the coaches, as their track records speak for themselves. Thomas Jefferson’s Bill Cherpak has won nine WPIAL titles (tied for most all time), Central Catholic’s Terry Totten has claimed six and Clairton’s Wayne Wade four.
Thomas Jefferson found itself with a 3-3 record after falling at Laurel Highlands, 31-24, on Sept. 30. It was Laurel Highlands’ first ever win against Thomas Jefferson, a feat that seemed to wake up the Jaguars. Since then, Cherpak’s bunch has won four games in a row by a combined score of 165-20. The most recent win was the biggest, as the Jaguars went on the road and beat previously unbeaten McKeesport, 20-10.
Now Thomas Jefferson gets a rematch with No. 11 Latrobe (7-4), which topped No. 6 Highlands, 28-21, in the first round to capture its first playoff victory since 1968. In a battle of cats, the Jaguars beat the visiting Wildcats, 31-21, on Sept. 16. In that game, Thomas Jefferson’s Brody Evans completed 13 of 19 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns and the Jaguars forced three turnovers. Latrobe’s Robert Fulton rushed for 179 yards and scored on touchdown runs of 64 and 74 yards. On the season, Fulton has rushed for a Class 4A-leading 1,550 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Central Catholic nearly missed out on the postseason all together. The Vikings slipped past Seneca Valley, 28-25, in the final conference game on Oct. 21 to lock up the final spot. That win was preceded by a 33-28 win at Penn Hills and was followed by a 27-14 win against Gateway. The Vikings are now on a three-game win streak since beginning the season 3-4.
Next up for the Vikings is No. 2 seed and defending champion Mt. Lebanon (5-5), which itself has won three games in a row. Mt. Lebanon rallied from 16 points down in the fourth quarter to stun Central Catholic, 17-16, on Sept. 16. Ben McAuley booted the winning 18-yard field goal in the final seconds. The teams are meeting in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. Central Catholic topped Mt. Lebanon in the 2019 and 2020 semifinals, but Mt. Lebanon thumped the Vikings, 47-7, in last year’s final.
Clairton likely has the biggest hill to climb Friday. The Bears must face No. 1 seed and defending champion Canevin (10-1). Canevin is loaded with playmakers offensively and boasts the No. 3 scoring defense in the WPIAL (7.8 points per game).
However, don’t sleep on the Bears. They may have been hibernating for a good bit of the regular season but have followed a 3-5 start by registering three wins in a row. Last week, the Bears defeated Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 45-19. OLSH had beaten Clairton in the quarterfinals on its way to advancing to the final last season and defeated the Bears, 28-13, back on Sept. 10.