In its last two playoff outings, Lampeter-Strasburg vanquished its District 3 nemesis in Bishop McDevitt and surprised perennial title contender Berks Catholic in the championship game.
Now the Pioneers face an even bigger challenge: three-time state champion in Thomas Jefferson, who awaits them in Friday’s PIAA Class 4A semifinals.
While it’s been 11 years since the Jaguars last hoisted state gold, the state playoffs are familiar ground for their players and coaches. This is the first time Lampeter-Strasburg has ever been numbered among the state’s Final Four.
The Pioneers have made a season out of overcoming adversity, but Friday afternoon’s clash will be a massive undertaking.
Here’s a look at the game:
PIAA Class 4A Semifinals
Lampeter-Strasburg (11-3) vs. Thomas Jefferson (14-0)
Friday, 1 p.m. at Hollidaysburg Jr. High School (Hollidaysburg, Blair County)
ABOUT THOMAS JEFFERSON: The Jaguars have a tradition of excellence in the WPIAL, with nine titles since 1980, including a run of three straight from 2015-17. Thomas Jefferson also captured three PIAA championships in 2004, 2007, and 2008. Their 2004 title came at the expense of Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 2 powerhouse Manheim Central; the Jaguars routed the Barons 56-20 that year.
This season, TJ won the WPIAL with a 28-13 triumph over three-time defending state champion Erie Cathedral Prep, holding the powerful Ramblers to just one offensive touchdown and 261 total yards. It was a typical defensive performance for the Jaguars, who have allowed just 60 points all season. Only two teams have reached double-digits against TJ this year, and the Jaguars have posted six shutouts.
And their offensive numbers are even more staggering. They average 45.9 points per game, 172 passing yards per game, and 233 yards per game on the ground. Quarterback Shane Stump has completed 109 of 191 passes for 2,191 yards and 29 touchdowns, with just one interception all season. His top target, Daniel Deabner, has caught 43 passes for 940 yards and 18 scores. Dylan Mallozzi handles the bulk of the rushing duties, with 1,537 yards and 23 touchdowns on 177 attempts.
TJ has a massive offensive line, anchored by senior tackles Michael Huber (6-0, 270) and Mac Duda (6-4, 275). Jacob Krawczyk (6-4, 260) and Logan Danielson (6-1, 265) are the guards, while Nicholas Trainer — the runt of the litter, at 6-1, 210 — plays center.
The Jaguars have to be feeling good about themselves after vanquishing Cathedral Prep, their state-playoff nemesis. The Ramblers had ended TJ’s season in 2015, 2016 and 2017 in the first round of States. Now, the Jaguars have finally broken through.
TJ is coached by Bill Cherpak, the architect of the Jaguars’ three previous state title teams. Cherpak has 272 victories in his 25 years at TJ’s helm.
ABOUT LAMPETER-STRASBURG: The level of adversity the Pioneers have overcome to make their run to the District 3 championship has been well-chronicled, but here’s a quick review: their opening-day starter was lost to the season after his first game. The heir to the starting job, Connor Nolt, sat out the district playoff opener with an injury, but L-S still rolled to a 34-7 victory over Elco with a sophomore under center.
The Pioneers got Nolt back in the lineup a week later, but had to knock off previously unbeaten York Suburban with their leading rusher, Bryan McKim, sitting out with an injury. McKim was sidelined again in the district semifinals, where L-S rallied from a 20-0 halftime deficit to stun Bishop McDevitt 30-27.
L-S was finally back at full strength in last Friday’s 4A title game against Berks Catholic. After roaring out to an early 14-0 lead, the Pioneers allowed the Saints to fight their way back into the game before surging ahead to stay in the fourth quarter on their way to a 35-21 triumph. Nolt threw for one touchdown and rushed for another, while McKim marked his return to the lineup with 125 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
The Pioneers outgained Berks Catholic 313-181 in total yardage and survived despite committing three turnovers.
It was the second district title for Lampeter-Strasburg. Coach John Manion’s troops captured a Class 3A crown in 2007.
It was also the fourth straight win for L-S, whose losses this year came to Hempfield (27-20), Manheim Central (33-14), and District 3 Class 5A champion Cocalico (41-13).
Nolt has completed 91 of 192 passes for 1,967 yards and 19 touchdowns in 12 starts this season. McKim, a 5-7, 185-pound senior, has 1,204 yards and 16 scores on 149 carries despite also missing two games. Alex Knapp is another solid weapon in the Pioneer backfield, with 709 rushing yards and eight scores on 78 carries. He’s also one of the Pioneers’ main receiving threats, with 25 catches for 419 yards and three scores. Austin Stoltzfus leads L-S with 27 catches for 629 yards and six TDs.
Friday night’s winner will face either District 4 champion Jersey Shore (11-3) or District 2 champ Dallas (14-0) in the PIAA Class 4A title game on Thursday, Dec. 5 in Hersheypark Stadium. Kickoff for the title game is slated for 7 p.m.