Thomas Jefferson High looks impregnable from across the state. The PIAA Class AAA Western final champion is 15-0. Jefferson has run over its opponents, almost literally, including a 35-6 victory over Erie Strong Vincent in the state semifinals last weekend.
That's from a distance.
A closer look will reveal a masterful job done by Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak, who had to piece together a team that lost its starting tailback (Brian Baldrige to a torn anterior cruciate ligament) the first game of the season and replaced its starting quarterback (Tyler Wehner) eight games into this season.
Jefferson will meet Garnet Valley (13-1) at 7 tonight at Hersheypark Stadium for the PIAA Class AAA state championship. This is Garnet Valley's first trip to the state finals, while Jefferson won the Class AAA state title in 2004.
Zach DiCicco, Jefferson's leading receiver through much of the season, came on to replace Wehner after he was dismissed from the team for breaking team rules. DiCicco has saved the season in many ways, as has Cherpak, in constantly reshaping this team.
"Zach DeCicco has really stepped up and fulfilled an important role," Cherpak said. "We needed to find another direction to go after Wehner was dismissed, and Zach has been awesome ever since. We've had to move things around all season long. At times, I'll admit, I didn't enjoy it. But we've progressed through the latter part of the season and we're coming together now. It wasn't that way all season.
"I'm really pleased with the kids to get this far. It just seemed that there was always something happening. I give the credit to the kids, they've kept things together."
Pittsburgh-bound tackle Lucas Nix has been the focal point of this team. The 6-6, 290-pound Nix has led a rushing attack that has 57 touchdowns and steamrolled opponents for 3,680 yards.
There's no mystery to Jefferson. It comes at opposing teams with the attitude of "Here we come, stop us."
"They're confident in their style and what they do, and I don't blame them, it's what good teams do," Garnet Valley coach Mike Ricci said. "They line up and they pound it at you. They jam it down your throat. We'll have to put body against body and play a physical game. They're not just big, they can move, too."
Garnet Valley, which has an eight-game winning streak, will counter with speed and power. Tim Keyser took a short pass 74 yards for the winning touchdown in Garnet Valley's 27-20 victory over Lampeter-Strasburg in the Eastern final last Friday, while quarterback Eric Van Wyk amassed more than 200 yards passing and rushing.
Fullback Jared Bonacquisti represents the power, rushing for 874 yards and scoring 23 touchdowns this season.
"This is an exciting time," Ricci said. "We're practicing late in December and the school is electric, the community is behind us. But at game time, we have to maintain a right balance. We have another game to play and one of the advantages we have is that we really prepare well. We're enjoying it; we're loosely focused, just like we've been any other week." *