Bar set high for Thomas Jefferson boys, girls basketball programs

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Sunday, March 28, 2021 | 10:01 AM


There is a sunny disposition in both Thomas Jefferson basketball programs heading into 2021-22.

The senior-driven boys team will have key players back from this year’s 18-5 unit, while the girls team has high hopes to build off its 12-10 record thanks to a host of talented underclassmen.

“I really thought our kids, all year long, worked as hard as any team I have ever coached,” said Dom DeCicco, TJ’s veteran boys coach. “After losing four starters from last year’s team that made WPIAL semifinals, for this team to go 18-5 was a credit to them and there work ethic.

“Our expectations every year are the same: to make the playoffs and get better every day.”

TJ won nine of its first 10 games, was 14-2 in early February and entered the playoffs riding a three-game winning streak. The Jaguars lost a tough 61-59 decision to visiting Latrobe in the first round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs.

The squad was led by senior starters Ian Hansen, Jake Pugh and Aidan Kelly in the backcourt, with Ethan Dunsey and Preston Zandier in the frontcourt.

“This team was really fun to coach. I’m definitely going to miss the seniors,” DeCicco said. “Preston Zandier played great for us, and I knew Hansen, Pugh, Kelly and Dunsey would give us solid play.

“Aidan Kelly had a fantastic year. He was our best player getting to the rim. What was more impressive is how much better he got defensively this year. No way we have the success we had if he didn’t play like he did.”

It appears next year’s squad will be built around Evan Berger, a 6-foot-1 freshman guard, Shawn McSwiggen, a 6-3 junior swingman, and Jordan Meyer, a 6-4 sophomore forward.

“I thought Evan Berger, as a freshman, was outstanding,” DeCicco said. “Jordan Meyer, as a sophomore coming off the bench, was really good, as was Shawn McSwiggen.

“I really like our young kids. Our JV team was 15-3. Berger, McSwiggen and Meyer played a ton of varsity minutes and with our young kids coming up, I would be disappointed if we aren’t good again.”

Berger developed into one of the Jaguars’ go-to players down the season’s home stretch.

“I think the sky’s the limit for Evan,” DeCicco said. “As he gets stronger and matures, as long as he works his tail off in the offseason and plays AAU with players better than him, Evan can be one of the best players in WPIAL next year.”

The girls team, meanwhile, lost just twice to Trinity in section games in 2020-21, finishing second with a 9-2 record.

TJ played an aggressive nonsection schedule, facing Class 6A opponents Baldwin (twice), Peters Township, Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair and North Allegheny, 5A teams Chartiers Valley and South Fayette and 4A Southmoreland.

TJ defeated Albert Gallatin, 47-38, and lost to Woodland Hills, 48-44, in the first two rounds of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs.

“I’m very proud of how hard the girls worked this year,” said coach Lisa Fairman. “We kept getting better all year and played very well down the stretch. The girls learned to play together as a team and take pride in doing their job. We greatly improved from the start to the finish.

“We graduated a lot of talent last year, so I knew we would be young with only two returning starters and really not many others with varsity experience. However, our team really stepped up and had a great season. I knew the work ethic, drive and competitiveness was there, so it didn’t take us too long to gain the respect of our opponents and compete day in and day out.

“We really didn’t have a chance to get the younger girls prepared last year in the offseason due to the virus, so the first couple of weeks we had to learn quickly. The tempo at the varsity level is fast and physical, but we adapted very well as the season went on.”

The Jaguars’ catalyst was Graci Fairman, a talented junior point guard who provided a spark on both ends of the floor and who happens to be the coach’s daughter.

The 5-5 Fairman plans to play at the next level and has received recruiting interest from several colleges.

“I expect Graci to continue to be a leader on this team and help guide her teammates to reach all their goals and chase that WPIAL title,” Lisa Fairman said. “I also expect her to use her competitiveness, drive and passion for the game to help make not only herself better but everyone on the team better.

“I know winning a WPIAL title has been a dream of Graci’s since she was little. She is already training for next year.”

Fairman, a three-year starter, will lead a solid group of returning players in 2021-22, including sophomore guard Julia Berberich, sophomore forward Delaney Concannon, freshman guard Laekyn Flinn and freshman forward Gabby Breisinger.

Breisinger, at 5-10, is the team’s tallest player. Concannon and Flinn are both listed at 5-9.

Other leading prospects in an outstanding crop of freshman athletes include Raygen Hintemeyer, who missed most of this season because of a collarbone injury, Josie Pugh, Caroline Sommer, Bria Ringloff and McKenna Haggerty, all backcourt players.

“As coaches, we were surprised and pleased at how well the girls started to pick up our strategies on the defensive end,” Lisa Fairman said. “Defense takes a ton of work in the offseason, which we didn’t have, so for them to pick it up so quickly was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t always have the firepower to match up with opponents, but we won many of our games with the defensive effort.

“Quite honestly, we are setting the bar high for next year. We have a great deal of talent and experience coming back and we want more than ever to win the whole thing next season.”

Maddy Trainer, a 5-8 guard/forward, and Lexie Dadig, a 5-5 guard, were senior starters in 2020-21. Cindy Oberio and Jera Esper, both forwards, were senior reserves.

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