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Kelly savors TJ’s breakthrough volleyball season

shrTJvolley5110614
randy jarosz | for trib total media
Thomas Jefferson volleyball players celebrate following their WPIAL Class AA playoff win over South Fayette last week at Baldwin.
shrTJvolley5110614
randy jarosz | for trib total media
Thomas Jefferson volleyball players celebrate following their WPIAL Class AA playoff win over South Fayette last week at Baldwin.

One day after his team was eliminated from the PIAA playoffs, Thomas Jefferson girls volleyball coach Ron Kelly reflected on a season of thrills and dreamed of another chance at a title.

Only next time, he’d hope his girls hang on just a little longer.

Playing in its first state tournament in 10 years, Thomas Jefferson had Fort LeBoeuf right where the Jaguars wanted the Bison — up 2-1 in the best-of-5 Class AA quarterfinals series Saturday at Slippery Rock High School — when things began to unravel.

District 10 champion Fort LeBoeuf rallied to take the final two games and come away with a 3-2 victory, staying unbeaten and advancing to its third consecutive semifinals appearance Tuesday against D-10 rival Corry, which swept another WPIAL opponent, Beaver, 3-0, in the quarterfinals.

“It’s a heartbreaking game to play,” Kelly said Sunday. “When you get to that stage, there aren’t any bad teams. As a person watching, it was probably one of the better matches you’ll see in a while.”

Kelly already was looking forward to next season, his 13th as coach at Thomas Jefferson. If the Jaguars (18-2) are to keep from regressing, they’ll have to do it without their top two players, both expected to sign letters of intent to Division I schools this week.

Middle hitter Rachel Stover (Cleveland State) and outside hitter Allie Yurkovich (Robert Morris) are among three seniors who played in their final high school game, joining right-side hitter Madison Moran.

“We have a ton of players back from a nine-person rotation,” Kelly said. “Six starters, but we’ll miss two three-year starters in Rachel and Allie.”

They’ll miss Moran, too.

“Every girl kind of had their place on the team. We had great chemistry this year,” Kelly said. “Different people stepped up at different times. The role players knew their roles. Team unity was the key to our season.”

Thomas Jefferson last appeared in the PIAA playoffs in 2004, losing to District 10 Oil City in the first round. Before their first-round victory over District 9 champion St. Marys on Tuesday, the Jaguars hadn’t won a PIAA game since beating District 10’s General McLane in the first round in 2001.

On Saturday, Fort LeBoeuf (19-0), ranked No. 4 in the state by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association, put an end to No. 8 Thomas Jefferson’s season with a five-set victory on scores of 22-25, 25-22, 17-25, 25-20, 15-12.

Now the Jaguars will turn the page and return six starters for next season, five of whom are juniors this year — setters Bailey Veith and Megan Fitzgerald, libero Reis Zandier, outside hitter Natalie Miller and middle hitter Kayla Smith.

Sophomore right-side hitter Katie Birch also returns.

“The players call her ‘Whip’ because of the way she hits,” Kelly said of Birch, offering an example of the team unity he often attributes to this team.

Kelly couldn’t emphasize enough the importance of his three seniors. While the Jaguars never have missed an appearance in the WPIAL playoffs in Kelly’s 12 years as coach, this team is bound to remain a special group with him.

“Rachel is a true offensive force, a great hitter from different areas along the net, a legitimate 6-2,” he said. “Allie is a great passer and defender, one of the best all-around players in the WPIAL. They are a great combo in the middle.

“Madison, for a first-year starter, had some big kills this year and is a very smart hitter.”

With a full year to get ready, Kelly hopes the rest of the team is listening.

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].

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