New-look Thomas Jefferson volleyball squad out to keep section title streak going

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Sunday, October 4, 2020 | 11:01 AM


Thomas Jefferson has won eight consecutive section championships in girls volleyball.

The Jaguars under coach Ron Kelly long ago established themselves as annual WPIAL playoff and title contenders.

This year’s team is a work in progress. The Jaguars suffered heavy graduation losses — 10 seniors — from last year’s WPIAL runner-up squad.

“We are a young team,” Kelly said. “This is very different than the last seven years. It’s tough. We lost a lot of multiple-year starters. We are working on getting a starting team together and hope that they jell. Once we get in a couple more weeks, I think we’ll be better.”

Young?

The Jaguars have three seniors and seven juniors in the program, along with eight sophomores and 13 freshmen.

Lily Rockwell, Jenna Fox and Celia Dobransky are seniors. Julia Palmer, Caitlyn Chalovich, Alyssa Lash, Riley Patrick, Ella Radakovich, Kaylee Rehak and Emma Stock are juniors.

Along with being a youthful squad, the Jaguars are doing their best to abide by the guidelines established across the state for the covid-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has impacted us some in our preparation,” Kelly said. “With the 25-person limit (in the gym), we have to separate the varsity and junior varsity, so some team bonding has been different than in past years. It will be a very challenging if these numbers remain.”

Another setback for the Jaguars was the loss of Palmer, a returning starter at outside hitter who suffered an ACL injury prior to the regular season.

“Lily Rockwell moved into the middle to help out at that position,” Kelly said. “Cate Galioto is our new libero.”

Galioto is a 5-foot-1 libero and the smallest player on the team. The four other sophomores on the varsity early in the season were Emma Ratner, Julia Territ, Julia Berberich and Delaney Concannon.

Top freshman prospects included Mia Fox, Rylie Sippey and Gabby Breisinger.

Palmer, Galioto and Rockwell, a right-side hitter a year ago, were starters last season.

The 2020 starting rotation consists of Rockwell and Territ at middle hitter, Concannon and Mia Fox at outside hitter, Jenna Fox at right-side hitter, Chalovich at setter and Galioto at libero. Dobransky, Stock, Radakovich and Ratner rotate as defensive specialists.

Jenna Fox, older sister of Mia, is one of the more active student-athletes at TJ. She is president of the computer club and orchestra and is a member of the French Club, Big Jag Little Cub, STEM, National Honor Society, AP Humanities and academic league.

“I am extremely excited to see how this year’s team does,” said Fox, who stands 5-5 and has a 4.406 GPA. “We are a young team, but that does not mean we are short on talent and experience. I feel privileged to get to see my younger teammates grow as players and as a part of the TJ volleyball program, especially my sister Mia.”

Dobransky, a 5-6 defensive player who is a four-year member of the high school’s a cappella choir, believes TJ will make a serious run at another section championship followed by a strong playoff appearance.

“I’m very excited,” Dobransky said. “The team dynamics have made the whole pandemic process enjoyable. We have a lot of young talent, which is really exciting watching them grow into their full potential. The girls on this team are really special, and we are going to put up a fight to defend our section title.”

The Jaguars have been doing their best to work through the guidelines caused by the pandemic.

“I believe that covid has actually had a positive effect on our team,” Fox said. “Because of all of the shutdowns, the team got together to start conditioning a month earlier than usual thanks to the extra time on our hands. The extra work strengthened our bond and made us even more prepared for our season.

“Minus the delay in the start of section games, TJ volleyball has been business as usual. Our turnout of girls trying out for the team has not decreased in the slightest. The pandemic has made us grateful for every second we get to play together and against others.”

Dobransky, who owns a 3.9 GPA, agreed with her classmate.

“I would say TJ has made the best of this pandemic,” she said. “We did have to wait to get in the gym, but once we did, we hit the ground running and made the most with our limited time.”

TJ opened the season with section wins against Belle Vernon, Albert Gallatin and Uniontown and a section loss to Laurel Highlands.

“The team is starting to come together,” Kelly said. “The team is young and we are missing a true vocal leader on the court, so we are working on all the players stepping up and talking more. We are a good serving team. Our serve receive has been up and down so far.”

Prior to 2020, the TJ netters captured 10 section titles in 11 years and compiled a sensational 89-3 record in league play over the past seven seasons.

On a more recent note, the team went undefeated at home last year in their newly opened state-of-the-art gym.

The Jaguars finished 14-0 in Section 3-AAA last year and were ranked No. 2 in Class AAA in the Western Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association’s final rankings.

They remain in the same section this year. TJ, Laurel Highlands, Elizabeth Forward and Albert Gallatin are joined by Belle Vernon, Uniontown and Yough. Ringgold has moved into Section 2.

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