TJ grads enjoy banner freshman volleyball seasons
Allie Yurkovich and Rachel Stover experienced both individual and team success as student-athletes in the Thomas Jefferson girls’ volleyball program.
Both graduated in 2015, and both are continuing their volleyball career at the collegiate level.
Both of their college teams advanced to the NCAA Division I women’s volleyball tournament last fall.
Yurkovich, a 5-foot-7 freshman libero, is a defensive specialist at Robert Morris University, which met No. 12 Ohio State in the NCAA tournament.
The Colonials defeated three-time defending Northeast Conference tournament champion LIU Brooklyn, 3-1, to claim the tournament title and receive an automatic NCAA bid.
“Winning the conference was a big dream for the program long before I became a part of it, so I’m thankful I got to contribute to everything we accomplished,” Yurkovich, 18, said. “The moment we won that game is one that nobody can ever take away from any of us, and one that none of us will ever forget.
“Making the NCCA tournament is something I think everyone who plays dreams about. I’m so glad I got to share that experience with these girls because they really are something special.”
Stover, a 6-2 outside hitter, is a freshman member of the Cleveland State University women’s team, which ran up against Southern California — the No. 1 seed — in the NCAA tournament.
The Vikings earned the Horizon League’s automatic NCAA bid by winning the league’s tournament championship.
“My first season on the Cleveland State team was such a great experience, and I am so thankful that I got to be a part of it,” Stover, 18, said. “The coaches and girls were so welcoming and a made me feel right at home. I could not have been more lucky to be surrounded by a better group of people, who are now my second family.
“Every girl on this team played a part in (us) going as far as we did. It started in practice every day. We focused on the present and what we needed to do to become successful in that moment.”
Robert Morris, which finished with 19-12 regular-season and 11-3 conference records, lost in three sets at Ohio State in the NCAA first round.
Yurkovich and teammate Taylor Lord combined for 18 digs for the Colonials, who won seven consecutive matches prior to the NCAA tournament.
“My first season was everything I was expecting it to be, and ending with a conference championship didn’t feel too bad either,” Yurkovich said. “Volleyball at the college level has taught me so much in such a short time. The other freshmen and I look up to the older girls, and we learned a lot from them on and off the court.
“Although all of us freshman did come in with a desire to compete, the upperclassmen and the coaches quickly showed us that it takes a lot more than just wanting to win to succeed. There’s a whole different higher level of focus, maturity and mental stability that you have to have for your team.”
Cleveland State dropped a 3-1 decision to USC in the opening round. The Vikings, who ended up 26-7 overall, advanced to the NCAA tournament for the third time in program history.
“By taking (it) day by day, we reached our first goal, which was be the No. 1 seed and host the Horizon League tournament,” Stover said. “The tournament had some great teams, but we battled our way to the championship game.
“Thinking about the moment we won still gives me the butterflies, and (puts) a smile on my face. We worked so hard to get there, and it just all became surreal. That’s a memory I will never forget.”
Stover, the tallest player on the team and one of 11 underclassmen in the program, posted four kills and three blocks against USC.
“We were determined to go into the NCAA tournament fighting hard,” she said. “One moment, we were in Cleveland; the next, we were on a plane to California to play the No. 1-seeded team.
“Although the match against USC was the end of the road for our season, we gave everything we had and proudly represented Cleveland State University. I am so blessed to have been part of such a great experience, and I am looking forward to what the next few years will bring.”
Yurkovich and Stover were instrumental to the success of the Thomas Jefferson girls’ volleyball program in recent years.
As seniors in 2014-15, they led the Lady Jaguars to the WPIAL Class AA championship game and a 16-1 overall record.
“It’s great to know as freshmen they started and made contributions to a winning team,” Ron Kelly, TJ’s coach, said. “I am sure they will improve, and their contributions will grow. Hopefully, they get to go (to the NCAA tournament) a few more times.”
The signature style of play for the Robert Morris team was an aggressive defense. The Colonials ranked second in the NEC in blocks, and tied for eighth nationally in digs per set (17.62).
That style dovetailed nicely with a patient and deliberate offense.
“I am extremely proud of these kids,” Dale Starr, RMU’s coach, said. “We’ve got five upperclassmen and nine underclassmen, and they’re such a family, so it’s really nice to see. And I’m really excited for the future.
“We bring 13 of our 14 back next year. Now, the work begins because I think defending (the conference championship) is harder than winning it.”
Robert Morris, thanks in part to an influx of freshman recruits, went undefeated in the month of November. The Colonials entered the NCAA tournament riding a seven-match winning streak.
Yurkovich, who is majorig in nursing, was joined by five other freshmen in the RMU program for the 2015-16 school year.
“The best part about my freshman year was the family that my team became,” she said. “We failed and succeeded together no matter what. We had each other’s backs in and out of the gym. You don’t come across that too often, so I’m very thankful.”
At Thomas Jefferson, Yurkovich was named All-WPIAL and all-section twice.
She also played for Pittsburgh Elite Volleyball and qualified for nationals in Dallas, Texas, with the Elite 16 Premier team.
“Allie was a good player as a sophomore but, her junior year, I really never saw a player improve that much in one year,” Kelly said. “I know she worked (hard) in the summer, but she was a little taller, a little faster, jumped higher and gained a confidence in herself.
“Her senior year, she switched positions because we needed an outside hitter and she was probably our best outside. That improved us a lot because it added a great passer to the outside hitter position. She was a vocal leader and kept everyone focused, especially during the games. Defensively, she’s probably the best high school player that has played for me.”
Stover, who plans on majoring in occupational therapy, was a two-time all-state honoree and a 2014 WPIAL player of the year selection. She also was named all-section three times.
“Rachel is one of the strongest young ladies I’ve ever coached,” Kelly said. “She hit the ball hard, and was an intimidating person on the court. The freshman players, at first, were a little intimidated by her because she was an imposing figure. Once the first week of practice started, everyone loved her.
“She was quite a character. During camp, we had theme days, a TJ tradition, and Rachel had some of the best costumes. Rachel kept everyone loose. During the games, she never let a mistake bother the way she played.”
Stover and Yurkovich led Thomas Jefferson to three section championships, a WPIAL runner-up finish and an eighth-place showing in the PIAA playoffs.
“The two were the X-factor in making us successful,” Kelly said. “As seniors, they were the team leaders in so many ways.
“They were vocal to an extent, but (their) leadership and setting an example of what and how to practice was the difference maker. Both were unflappable and wanted to be the player to make that next pass, serve, hit or save.”
There were many highlights in high school for both, but one stands out for Kelly, the Lady Jaguars’ veteran coach.
“One play they made will always be in my mind,” he said. “In the Derry tournament while playing Greensburg Central Catholic, Allie dives for a ball and someone else touches it. While on the ground, she sticks her hand up as far as possible to play the ball right to the setter, as Rachel comes in and buries a quick set.”
Cleveland State tied the women’s volleyball program record for wins in one season over the past 30 years.
Robert Morris and Cleveland State athletics contributed to this story. Ray Fisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or email@example.com.