Thomas Jefferson hockey making strides against tougher competition

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Sunday, January 10, 2021 | 9:01 AM


Thomas Jefferson’s hockey team is on the rise.

After competing in the PIHL Class A division for several years, the Jaguars moved up to Class AA this season.

At the end of December, TJ owned a 2-1-1 record in the Varsity AA Southwest Division.

“The league uses a fair-play formula based on your team’s wins versus enrollment. That number put us up in AA,” TJ coach Bill Crousey said. “After playing Baldwin and West Allegheny, I learned we could compete in AA. I also learned we needed to do more to win. As the season progresses, I hope we can figure that out and make the necessary adjustments.

“The team has made great strides. We still have some work to do, but if the players continue to work hard we will be fine.”

TJ savored a banner 2019-20 season until the pandemic ended it.

The Jaguars advanced to the Penguins Cup final, scheduled for March 16, when play was stopped in the PIHL. The Jaguars were set to oppose Indiana at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

Led by an explosive offensive attack, Thomas Jefferson finished 21-1 overall, outscored the opposition 167-46 and won its final 19 games.

“Last year, our seniors led our team to a great season only to be shut down by the pandemic,” Crousey said. “I don’t want to see that happen again to any team.

“I’m hoping we can get back to safely playing. We are following all guidelines for the pandemic set forth by the school and the league.”

The Jaguars have a host of players back from last year’s high-flying team; there were only four seniors on the roster in 2019-20.

Forward lines consist of seniors Eddie Pazo, Hunter Fairman and Ryan Kelly; freshman Andrew Oliver with seniors Riley Holzer and Will O’Brien; juniors Nick Stock and Colby Bilski with senior Luke Rayman; and juniors Jimmy Passanante and Ty Rayman with freshman Jake Stock and sophomore Duane Sontheimer.

Fairman, Holzer, Bilski, Luke Rayman and Nick Stock rotate at the center position. Fairman, Pazo, Kelly and O’Brien are TJ’s leading scorers.

Holzer is team captain; Fairman and O’Brien are alternate captains.

Last year, O’Brien and Holzer led the way with 59 and 55 points, respectively. O’Brien netted a team-high 32 goals. Holzer had a team-leading 35 assists.

Other catalysts included Fairman, Pazo, Bilski, Luke Rayman, Kelly and Nick Stock.

“Our expectations were really high coming into this year with all the players we had coming back,” O’Brien said. “I thought we started off slow the first couple of games, but I think we’ve raised the level of intensity and urgency. Hopefully after the break we can continue playing the game the right way. We are looking forward to the second half of the season.”

O’Brien started playing amateur hockey at age 8. He also skates for the Pittsburgh Predators U18 team.

O’Brien said the Jaguars “enjoy the challenge” of competing in Class AA after last year’s success in Class A.

“It was really disappointing for all of us that we could not play in the Pens Cup,” O’Brien said, “but we’ve had to put that behind us and focus on this year.

“Hopefully, there is a second half of the season. And hopefully, we keep playing the right way and make the playoffs.”

TJ’s defensive corps is anchored by seniors Brady Rotolo and Jake Gardiner, junior Brett Smith and sophomores Lance Smith and Zachary Strutt.

“Luke Rayman also helps on defense throughout the game,” Crousey said.

Senior Luke Ripepi and junior Bill Siemon are the team’s goaltenders

“It’s the first time in seven years we’ve have two goalies,” Crousey said.

Ripepi compiled a 2.50 goals-against average and .877 save percentage through four contests.

Last year, he posted an 18-1 regular-season record, 2.37 GAA and .892 save percentage. He also logged two playoff wins, stopping 18 of 19 shots, and wrapped up the season with four shutouts.

TJ was scheduled to return to action Jan. 14 at Hempfield.

The Jaguars are scheduled to close out the month with home games against Plum (Jan. 18) and Shaler (Jan. 28) at Ice Castle Arena, along with a road test Jan. 25 versus West Allegheny.

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