Stocked with height, athleticism, Thomas Jefferson volleyball team has high hopes

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Sunday, April 18, 2021 | 11:01 AM


With seven starters returning from 2019, the Thomas Jefferson boys volleyball team has high hopes for the 2021 season.

“We set our expectations high with a lot of returning veterans,” coach Frank Staffen said. “There are still a lot of unknowns since the season was canceled last year.

“The team is coming together and working hard. I have high expectations for them this year. The starting positions have been very competitive with some of the players sitting the bench because there are not enough starting positions.”

The Jaguars opened the season ranked in the top 10 in Class AA in the TribLive HSSN boys volleyball rankings. TJ started out 3-0 with a nonsection victory against North Hills, 3-1, and section wins over Keystone Oaks, 3-0, and Bishop Canevin, 3-1.

The TJ netters are equipped with outstanding height at the net and all-around individual athleticism.

The team is led by juniors Shawn McSwiggen, a 6-foot-6 junior outside hitter/defensive specialist, and Adam Weidmann, a 6-5 outside hitter, and seniors Joaquin Gardner-Gotera, a 6-2 middle hitter, and Brayden Andrisko, a 5-9 libero.

McSwiggen is a two-sport standout; he was an integral member of the TJ boys basketball team this winter.

“My expectations for this year are to really compete in our section and prove how good we can be to everyone in AA and to ourselves,” he said, “by making the playoffs and competing for our first WPIAL (volleyball) title.

“We have a lot of experience with our seniors who have played since they were freshman and were shaped by our past players and coach Staffen.”

McSwiggen also has played baseball but took up volleyball as a spring sport a few years ago.

“I switched from baseball to volleyball my freshman year and fell in love with it,” he said. “Then this year, I started playing club volleyball with John Lawrence (Excile Volleyball Club), which helped me grow as a player and makes me want to play in college.

“I also play basketball at TJ, which translates to the volleyball court for me being a leader. I am very fortunate that my mom is also on the sideline coaching me this season.”

Other returning starters for the Jaguars consist of seniors Colin O’Dea, a 6-1 middle hitter, Cody Pavicic, a 6-0 setter, and Jacob Weber, a 5-11 outside hitter.

McSwiggen, Gardner-Gotera and Andrisko are co-captains.

“I run two lineups and try to include everyone on the team,” Staffen said. “I would like to run a two-setter system with all the hitters we have, but right now we are running a 5-1 system.”

Others in the mix in TJ’s rotation include senior defensive specialists Carson Arthrell and Cole Vernet, senior OH Sam Sweeney and junior setter Ian Karel, who also is a defensive specialist.

Leading reserves include senior DS Zack Budday and junior DS/OH Andrew Getsy, along with sophomores Chris Bobak (OH), Alex Fedorychev (MH) and Akash Gurung (S/DS).

Will Stewart, a 6-4 middle hitter, Aaron DeNardo, a 6-0 setter, Alex Blaker (DS), Mikhail Lapitski (OH) and J.J. Salman (DS/OH) are top freshman prospects.

Thomas Jefferson is a member of Section 3-2A along with Bishop Canevin, Keystone Oaks, Seton LaSalle, Steel Valley and Trinity.

Staffen expects the Jaguars to battle Seton LaSalle for the section championship. The Rebels were ranked No. 1 in Class A in the preseason.

“The guys are playing with a lot of emotions and have a fighting attitude,” Staffen said. “They don’t get rattled and work hard on each and every point.”

Staffen and the Jaguars have a new look at practice and at matches as Debbie McSwiggen has joined the program as a first-year assistant.

“She has been working hard and helping the players,” Staffen said.

McSwiggen was an assistant on the TJ girls volleyball team from 2000-2002. The Jaguars won the WPIAL championship in 2001.

“I left because I got pregnant with Shawn,” she said. “I am very excited to be back to coaching, especially being able to coach my son.”

McSwiggen also coached at Baldwin for 10 years at the middle school level and has been a PIAA official for 34 years.

“We have a good core group of boys who should be able to win,” she said. “Our expectations for the team are to be very competitive in our section and make the playoffs. We’re hoping to go to the (WPIAL) final.”

Team members at TJ who graduated in 2020 include Riley Hovan, Sam Richard and Evan Kempa.

Hovan, who was an all-section selection and four-year player for the Jaguars, is continuing his career at St. Vincent. He is a 5-11 freshman setter/defensive specialist and engineering major.

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