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Thomas Jefferson girls’ volleyball team flourishing

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randy jarosz | for trib total media
Thomas Jefferson senior Allie Yurkovich

The Thomas Jefferson girls’ volleyball team chalked up one of the greatest seasons in school history.

Thomas Jefferson finished as the WPIAL Class AA runner-up in 2014, losing a heart-breaker to Ford City, 3-2, in the championship match.

The No. 2-seeded Lady Jaguars advanced to the WPIAL finals with impressive playoff victories against Derry, South Fayette and Beaver.

“I think that this reinstills what it’s about,” Ron Kelly, the Lady Jaguars’ head coach, said. “We had a lot of students come and follow (TJ). This year, we had 45 girls come out for volleyball. That’s a lot.

“We have a good base, too. We have four or five juniors starting and a sophomore, too. We’ve got a good mix of kids, and they’re all nice kids.”

Kelly will have a talented group of juniors returning as starters in 2015 in OH Natalie Miller, S Bailey Veith, L Reis Zandier, MH Kayla Smith and S Megan Fitzgerald.

Also, sophomore RS Katie Birch was in this year’s starting lineup.

The Lady Jaguars, led by a trio of senior starters in OH Allie Yurkovich, MH Rachel Stover and RS Madison Moran, won their third consecutive section championship in 2014, and fifth in six years.

The TJ girls went 14-0 in Section 6-AA before suffering a nonsection loss to Greensburg Central Catholic in their regular-season finale.

“I was really pleased with the way the girls came together and players adjusted to their new positions,” Kelly said. “Both starting outside hitters were back-row players on last year’s varsity team. They improved all season long and were a key to our success. Our middles, as a unit, were as good as anyone we played and caused a matchup problem for some teams. The right-side hitters were consistent. The setters did a good job running our offense.

“The best part of the team and a driving force in our run was the defensive play. In some games we blocked teams out of their offense and our floor defense was exceptional. We made outstanding plays, especially in the playoffs that kept us going.”

The Lady Jaguars, who also defeated Elizabeth Forward in nonsection action, knew early in the year that this had the potential to be a banner season.

“After the Derry tournament, things looked pretty good,” Kelly said. “We played Ford City, Norwin and Greensburg Central Catholic in that tournament.

“Ford City’s pretty good. They’re a frustrating team; their defense is very good. They have a couple of girls who can hit the ball.”

The Lady Jaguars split decisions with Ford City in the Derry tournament.

“To us, it’s wasn’t a shock when they upset (No. 1) Freeport,” Kelly said.

Thomas Jefferson also split decisions in the PIAA Class AA playoffs, blanking District 8 champion St. Marys, 3-0, and falling to District 10 champion Fort LeBoeuf, 3-2, in the first two rounds.

Fort LeBoeuf rallied to take the final two games to advance to its third consecutive PIAA semifinal appearance.

“When you get to that stage, there aren’t any bad teams,” Kelly said.

What was the strength of this year’s highly successful team at TJ?

“Our passing (was) very consistent,” Kelly said. “Allie really developed into an outstanding outside hitter, and our two middles, Rachel and Kayla, are better than anyone in Double A.

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

Here’s a brief look at each starter’s athletic prowesss, from their coach’s perspective:

• Natalie Miller — “Natalie’s one of our four primary passers. She’s not the tallest front-row player, but she jumps very well. And she has a very nice serve.”

• Bailey Veith — “Bailey’s a smart setter. She makes good sets; she knows the strength of the players in the front row. She’s steady, very dependable and is low key. She just quietly does the job.”

• Allie Yurkovich — “Allie’s a three-year varsity starter; she played libero last year. She’s a good leader; she leads by example. She has a good floor presence. She was outstanding this year.

“Allie is a great passer and defender, one of the best all-around players in the WPIAL.”

• Reis Zandier ­— “Reis is that person who’s always smiling. She’s very positive. When she digs the ball, it always goes up in the air for the setters. She’s just an outstanding girl.”

• Rachel Stover — “Rachel is strong and intimidating. She’s jumps well, and blocks on both sides. She has a very good serve. She’s 6-2 — she hits the ball a little flatter.

“Rachel is a true offensive force, a great hitter from different areas along the net, a legitimate 6-2.”

“Sometimes people get rattled (on the court); she doesn’t get rattled.”

• Kayla Smith — “Kayla’s a perfect complement to Rachel. She’s athletic, and she jumps well. She’s a really good blocker.”

• Madison Moran — “Madison’s sort of like a ‘feel-good’ story. She missed her sophomore season with an injury. She went out and worked hard every day. She’s very steady.

“Madison, for a first-year starter, had some big kills this year; she’s a very smart hitter.”

• Megan Fitzgerald — “Megan’s a strong girl. She has a nice jump-serve. She set (up) Rachel a lot.”

• Katie Birch — “We call Katie the ‘Whip’ because of the way she hits. She has a strong arm and she comes up with big hits. She is the heir apparent to Allie’s job next year.”

All nine starters at TJ were named to the all-section squad.

Yurkovich, Stover, Smith and Birch were first-team selections. Miller, Zandier and Fitzgerald were lauded as second-team picks. Moran and Veith were third-team honorees.

Yurkovich and Stover also were selected first-team all-WPIAL, while Smith was a third-team WPIAL all-star.

“This group of girls was a team, more like a family,” Kelly said. “We had some problems, but we worked through them and it made us better. I can dish out superlatives all day about this team from player 1 through player 17, but the best thing I can say is this season was special.”

Thomas Jefferson and Ford City staged a WPIAL championship match for the ages this year. The Lady Jaguars captured the first and third sets, then rallied to tie it at 13-13 in the fifth set.

“There were a ton of rallies, and that sometimes is the difference — whoever wins the big rallies seems to get all the momentum going,” Kelly said. “It was weird because we won one, they won one; we won one, they won one. That last game, they had the lead and we got back into it. It was a two-point game, and to have the championship come down to two points, you don’t want to be the team behind. I’m glad we got back into it. That showed some heart on my girls’ part.

“But like I said, (Ford City) earned the victory. We didn’t give it to them. They earned their points, and that’s the way it is sometimes. I have no problem walking out of this gym saying that. I’m proud of my players.”

The Lady Jaguars hammered St. Marys by scores of 25-14, 25-14, 25-7 last week in the PIAA Class AA first round.

Fort LeBoeuf edged the TJ girls, 22-25, 25-22, 17-25, 25-20, 15-12, in the PIAA quarterfinal round.

“The TJ women’s volleyball team would like to thank everyone in the community for their support — parents, family members, teachers, administrators, school board members, students, previous players and their parents, and friends,” said Angie Yurkovich, TJ’s assistant coach, via email. “It was so exciting for us to see you all at our games.

“A special thank you to the second-graders and sixth-graders who took the time to make us good luck cards. You are all a part of the many wonderful memories we created this season.”

The TJ girls ended up 19-3 overall.

Trib Total Media contributed to this story. Ray Fisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or [email protected].

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