Thomas Jefferson boys soccer overcomes injuries to get off to strong start

Sunday, September 24, 2023 | 11:01 AM

Thomas Jefferson, expected to be a contender for a section title in boys soccer, found itself reeling from injuries in the first month of the season.

Two returning starters and a top underclassman expected to be a big contributor missed the early part of the schedule recovering from offseason knee injuries.

Anthony Orlando (knee), TJ’s leading goal scorer last year and an all-WPIAL selection, senior forward Anthony Orlando (knee), senior midfielder Sean Shimko (knee) and sophomore midfielder Andrew Callaghan (wrist) sat out the initial stages of the season recovering from injuries.

“Going into this year, I believed we had a team that could compete for the section title,” TJ coach Michael “Doc” Kulish said. “We had a lot of players coming back that had significant varsity playing time last year that are contributing as either starters or reserves.”

With a talented roster stacked with 10 returning starters from last year’s WPIAL quarterfinalist, the Jaguars — despite the injuries — won six of their first seven games and were 4-1 in Section 3-3A behind Bethel Park (6-0) and Ringgold (5-1).

TJ lost a tough 2-1 decision to Bethel Park and blanked a previously undefeated Ringgold squad, 4-0.

Along with Orlando and Shimko, junior forward Jake Shoemaker, junior midfielders Ray Schrello and Brayden Miller, senior defenders Robert Kisner and Nate Powell, junior defender Logan Schaffer and sophomore goalies Cody O’Hare and Sam Wessel brought valuable experience to TJ’s 2023 lineup as returning starters

“With the graduation of two starters from last season, Andre Bekavac and Robbie Shoemaker, and the (early) injuries to Anthony and Sean, it created opportunities for sophomore forward Owen Householder, junior defender Bryce Kameg and Andrew Callaghan to step in and help the team,” Kulish said.

“One surprising newcomer is senior midfielder Guilherme (Gui) DeLima, a Brazilian student that moved to the district last year after the start of the season. He is a big, physical and skilled player who has helped to solidify our midfield.”

Two other players taking on bigger roles this year are juniors Dylan Legeza, at midfield, and Kolten Smith, a midfielder/defender.

“The strength of the team is the players’ speed and quickness,” said Kulish, who was named section coach of the year in 2021 and 2022.

Orlando said he took a natural approach to healing his knee because there wasn’t enough time to have surgery and be able to return to the pitch for his senior season.

“My knee is doing really well,” Orlando said. “I’ve been working with (Dr.) Jake (Wietholder), the physical therapist at Strength Fitness and Speed, since my injury, and I’m also seeing Dr. (Anthony) Dicesaro at the Whitehall Health Center for StemWave and chiropractic treatments.

“My knee has made tremendous improvement since my injury. I really think the combination of PT, chiro and StemWave have a lot to do with it. I’ve worked really hard to get my strength back. This was it. I had to go after everything within reach to heal my knee. I have been playing with some of my teammates since I was 6, and I’m excited to be getting back out there with my team.”

Shimko returned to the lineup Sept. 5 in his team’s 2-1 section win at Connellsville.

“I actually just finished up my recovery and it was great,” he said. “I put in a lot of work to get my knee back to 100%. My time was limited (against Connellsville) because it was my first game back.

“We are playing well but can still take our game to another level. We’ve had two other important parts to this team injured, but when we get them both back, I don’t see a lot of teams stopping us. My expectations are to win our section again and hopefully bring the WPIAL title back to TJ.”

The Jaguars captured the section crown last season with a 13-1 record, outscoring the opposition 65-9, and finished 17-3 overall. TJ reeled off an 80-19 season-long scoring advantage and posted 11 shutouts.

The Jaguars, also section champs in 2021, were paced last season by five all-section players led by Orlando, who accounted for 26 goals and 11 assists and was named section player of the year. He also was voted as TJ’s offensive player of the year by his teammates.

“There are a lot of talented players in our section and in the WPIAL and to be selected for these achievements is an honor,” said Orlando following the season. “I thought our team had a good season for the most part. Throughout the season, our team’s chemistry started to show and we began to become stronger as a team as the season went on.”

Bekavac and Robbie Shoemaker also were all-section selections a year ago, as were Jake Shoemaker and Powell. Robbie Shoemaker was voted TJ’s defensive player of the year by his teammates.

Bekavac received the UCA Senior Excellence Award and landed All-WPIAL status at his midfield position.

This season, the Jaguars outscored their first seven opponents by a 33-3 overall margin with five shutouts and held a 17-3 scoring advantage in five section games.

“I’m very proud of our season so far,” Orlando said. “We’ve had many people step up and we are only going to get better. The expectation is to win the section, which would be three in a row for us, but our goal is to win a WPIAL title.”

TJ won back-to-back 4-0 decisions against Albert Gallatin and Ringgold in mid-September.

Against Albert Gallatin, Householder scored twice, Miller and Shimko added a goal apiece, and O’Hare posted the shutout.

Jake Shoemaker was the offensive star against Ringgold with a two-goal performance.

Householder and Miller chipped in with a goal apiece while Schrello contributed two assists.


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