Growing up as the youngest of three in Munhall, Bill Cherpak was the epitome of hard-nosed football as a star lineman for the Ironmen of Steel Valley.
It’s fitting that win No. 300 for the Thomas Jefferson coach came via an old-school, smashmouth performance from the Jaguars, who beat visiting Latrobe, 21-6, in the WPIAL Class 4A quarterfinals.
“For us today, I think we came out like we had an off week,” Cherpak said. “The weather obviously played a part. We were a little rusty in the first half. We were sluggish, a little bit. Emotionally, it wasn’t all there. So in the second half, they came out with more intensity. The defense played great in the second half. We got some breaks, and then we were able to get in the end zone a couple times.”
The win advances Thomas Jefferson to the WPIAL semifinals for the 11th year in a row and for the 24th time in 25 years. The Jaguars will face Central Valley next week.
“We will enjoy it tonight, and then we will be back to work tomorrow morning,” Cherpak said. “We know Central Valley is a great team. Obviously, we have to prepare and work and play a lot better than we did tonight.”
When asked about improving his overall record to 300-53 in 28 seasons, Cherpak was not too impressed.
“300, they add up, and you just keep going,” Cherpak said. “It’s all about the next one.”
Cherpak played three years at Pitt before injury ended his career. He was an assistant at Thomas Jefferson for three seasons. He then spent a year as an assistant at Woodland Hills before accepting his current role as head coach of the Jaguars in 1995.
Since then, all Thomas Jefferson has done is win nine WPIAL championships and five PIAA championships.
Cherpak is just the fourth coach in WPIAL history to amass 300 wins. The other three are retired coaches Jim Render with 406, Joe Hamilton with 342 and George Novak with 306.
Fittingly, Novak was Cherpak’s coach at Steel Valley. It was Novak who gave Cherpak his assistant role for one season at Woodland Hills.
Cherpak is in the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
On Friday, the game plan was simple: Run the ball.
Junior quarterback Brody Evans knew from his first throw that an aerial attack wouldn’t work out very well.
“It was a struggle, but we just had to get through it,” he said. “My first throw, it was a little iffy. Slippery obviously.”
“The running backs did a great job,” Evans added. “The line up front getting the surge they did, it was just a great job all around by the team tonight.”
Junior running back Elias Lippincott had 31 rush attempts for 142 yards and two scores and senior Aidan Whalen added 22 carries for 101 yards and another score.
“In this weather, you had to run the ball,” Cherpak said. “To be able to have that change up of a power back and a speed back makes such a huge difference. For them, playing angles and things like that, that changes that up. And then, we can hit it outside a little bit. It is a good one-two punch.”
Whalen knew coming in that he would have a heavy workload.
“We practiced all week just trying to get ready,” Whalen said. “We used a wet ball and wet gloves to prepare for tonight. … [Finding traction] was a little tough, you just have to keep yourself centered.”
After the game, the cheerleaders lined the field, three balloons formed the number 300, and Cherpak was presented with the game ball and a plaque to commemorate his 300th win.
“It’s great for him,” Whalen said. “We all love coach. He’s a great role model.”
The players have learned from Cherpak. Not just about football, but also in ways that transcend the field.
“He taught me to work your butt off every day,” Whalen said. “Always try your best. Be mentally tough.”
“Being confident in myself,” Evans added. “Being confident in my teammates. And then honestly just being a better person and growing as a man.”
As Cherpak was quick to point out, 300 is “nice,” but 301 is his sole focus. All that stands between Thomas Jefferson and a trip to Acrisure Stadium on Nov. 25 for the championship are the Central Valley Warriors.
“I think we can get it done,” Evans said. “We just have to have a good week of practice.”
Saul works in sports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.