Thomas Jefferson hockey looks to maintain high-scoring pace down stretch

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Saturday, January 4, 2020 | 9:13 AM


That offensive explosion heard and seen around the PIHL this season has been launched by Thomas Jefferson Jaguars.

The Jaguars ended the 2019 portion of their schedule as one of the hottest teams in the league. TJ built a 10-game winning streak, starting Oct. 28 with a 6-1 victory against Westmont Hilltop and running through Dec. 17 with an 11-2 rout of Wheeling Catholic.

“The team has played really well up to this point,” TJ coach Bill Crousey said. “They are doing all the little things that make teams successful. I hope the team continues to improve, and secures a spot in the playoffs.

“Only the top two in each division make the playoffs. I’m expecting a very tight battle for those two spots.”

TJ was 12-1 and in first place in the Southwest A Division, ahead of South Park (10-2), North Hills (7-3) and Chartiers Valley (5-4).

TJ averaged eight goals per game and reached double figures five times. Junior forward Will O’Brien was the leading scorer in the division with 26 goals and 14 assists.

“Will has played very well,” Crousey said. “His effort every game has been very consistent, which I think he lacked last season. He also is seeing the ice better, which has helped his linemates and the team have the great start.”

O’Brien and three other junior forwards — Eddie Pazo (18), Riley Holzer (12) and Hunter Fairman (11) — accounted for 67 of the Jaguars’ PIHL-high 104 goals through their first 13 games.

Holzer paced TJ in assists with 20. Pazo, with six goals, and Fairman (seven assists) were top power-play performers.

Junior goaltender Luke Ripepi also sparkled for the Jaguars with a 12-1 record, 1.92 goals-against average, .902 save percentage and two shutouts.

“Luke continues to improve and has the potential to be even better,” Crousey said. “Most importantly, he has played well against the stronger teams. We will need that to continue with six of our remaining games against teams in the hunt for a playoff spot.”

Other leading scorers for the offensive juggernaut included sophomores Colby Bilski (seven goals, 12 assists) and Nick Stock (5, 8), plus juniors Ryan Kelly (7, 7) and Luke Rayman (4, 9).

Eight players averaged at least one point per game through the first four months of the season.

The Jaguars’ top three lines heading into the new year consisted of: 1) O’Brien, Holzer, Bilsk; 2) Kelly, Fairman, Pazo; and 3) Stock, Rayman, senior Jake Schmidt and/or sophomore Jimmy Passante.

Defensively, TJ has been solid thanks to the rotation of sophomore Brett Smith, seniors E.J. Burnstein and Brandon Kibe, juniors Brady Rotollo and Jake Gardiner and freshman standout Lance Smith.

Burnstein is team captain. Holzer and Pazo are the alternate captains.

“My role as captain is to just keep all of our guys on the same page each and every night and to try to lead by example each time I’m on the ice,” Burnstein said. “So far, I’ve been really impressed by the way we’re playing. We’ve always had the talent, but I think the difference between this year and years past is that all 18 guys are on the same page and playing the right way each and every game.”

TJ went 17-3 last season and advanced to the PIHL semifinals before losing 6-5 to Montour.

“Coming into this season, I felt we had a good group returning and the potential to be a very good,” Crousey said. “Adding Ryan Kelly, Colby Bilski and Lance Smith has definitely helped us in our strong start.

“Our strength is our depth. We run three lines, and at times four. We also use six defensemen every game. When you have a team capable of doing that, along with a good individual skill level, your team should be successful.”

Burnstein believes the Jaguars have had a chip on their collective shoulder after last season’s playoff loss.

“Our expectations were high coming into the season,” he said. “For the returning guys, we all had a sour taste in our mouth after the semifinal exit, and we wanted to prove ourselves this year. I think we’ve done just that up to this point.

“Since the start, it has been Pens Cup or bust for this team.”

TJ returns to PIHL action Jan. 20 against Kiski at the Ice Castle complex.

“We need to be ready to play every game,” Crousey said. “Our strong start should see us getting every opponent’s best effort.”

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