Woodland Hills and Thomas Jefferson, in recent years, are two WPIAL programs that have become notorious for either traveling out of the area to play a tough out-of-state opponent. In 2008, the Jaguars traveled to Steubenville, Ohio, to meet powerhouse Glenville, Ohio. It was the only loss the Jaguars suffered that year.
Thomas Jefferson opened its last two seasons against Washington D.C.'s H.D. Woodson in 2009, and then a neutral site game against Florida's Cocoa High School. The Wolverines opened up the 2008 season in Texas Stadium against Northwest (TX), the 2009 season against Steubenville, and the 2010 season against Florida's Manatee High School.
This year, instead of traveling or hosting someone from far away, the two schools meet each other, separated by a short trip across the Monongahela River. The thinking of playing one of these out-of-state schools has worked before, but both coaches have realized in this case, they don't have to look far to play a competitive opening game. The way this game came about, was when both schools all of a sudden had openings in Week One.
"This year, we both had games scheduled tentatively," Woodland Hills head coach George Novak said. "(Thomas Jefferson's) game got cancelled, and we were supposed to go to East St. Louis and play. We were going to have to raise some money to go there. (Thomas Jefferson head coach Bill Cherpak) called me up and said, ‘Why don't we play each other?' I thought that would be good. We lost a lot of guys last year, so we have a lot of work to do. Usually, traditionally, we're not strong up front when we're coming out of the gate. It'll be a good game."
The two coaches have combined for nine WPIAL championships since 1996. Novak has six overall, including five at Woodland Hills over the last 15 years in Quad-A. Cherpak has led Thomas Jefferson to four WPIAL titles in Triple-A since 2004. On paper, it might look like Woodland Hills has the edge because of enrollment. Novak doesn't view it that way.
"Enrollment-wise, our enrollment is down," Novak said. "Our enrollment is near the bottom of Quad-A, and their enrollment is at the top of Triple-A. There's not that much of a big difference in enrollment. In fact, he may have a bigger team than us this year. I was looking at his roster, and he's got some big kids."
Players like Woodland Hills receiver Shakim Alonzo agreed—thinking that enrollment, or classification, is a non-factor. They may not be travelling or playing a different team from out-of-state, but Alonzo knows how tough this game will be.
"I treat every game the same," Alonzo said. "Every game is the same for me. I'm here to win. There's no opponent that's better or weaker. We can lose to any team, any weak.
"You could lose to a Single-A school. It depends on if you're bringing it. They might bring it harder than you do. You should always bring it, and that's what we're here to do. That's why we're a great team." The other part in what makes this such an interesting matchup, is that Cherpak played for Novak at Steel Valley. In 1982, Novak led Steel Valley to a WPIAL title with Cherpak a member of that team. Cherpak later joined Novak's staff, before taking over a program of his own at Thomas Jefferson. Novak talked about how his relationship with Cherpak has gone from a coach/player relationship to fellow coaching colleague.
"We've always been friends," Novak added. "He was a good player. He went to Pitt. His career was ended. He probably could have played in the pros. He hurt his neck. Actually, he coached here for a year at Woodland Hills. Jack Garrity, who coached with me at Steel Valley, asked him to go out to Thomas Jefferson, and he eventually became a head coach. He's done an outstanding job."
On whether the players for either side feel the need to go out and win this one for their coach, the roots of how these respective programs have become the winning programs they've become, starts to come out. With a combined nine 10 WPIAL titles. There may be bragging rights involved between the head coaches. The most important thing involved for tonight's 7 pm game at The Wolvarena, is just winning.
"I'm aware of that, and we do want to win this for Coach, but we also have to win it for ourselves," Alonzo said. "We have to win it for everybody. We want to win. That's what we want to do. It doesn't matter if he's a player for Coach or not, we're still there to win. That's what we're trying to do."