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Thomas Jefferson hockey team looks to build on last season's success

| Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, 12:15 a.m.
Thomas Jefferson center Zach Uhlyar chases a loose puck against Westmont at Blade Runners in Bethel Park.
Thomas Jefferson goalie Nick Ripepi makes a stick save during the first period against Serra Catholic on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, at Blade Runners in Bethel Park.

The Thomas Jefferson hockey team is about to find out if there is truth to the old saying that it's harder to stay on top than it is to get to the top.

Last season was a renaissance for the Jaguars. They went 14-9 and finished atop Class A Section 1. That was the first time they had a winning record since the 2007-08 season.

“I believe the biggest reason for the team's big improvement last season was that for almost all the players, it was their third year of learning our system,” coach Bill Crousey said. “They were able to apply what we were practicing and execute that plan during the games most of the time.

“The only way for that to continue is to stay focused on playing our game and not get sucked into the way other teams play. The team still has plenty of players that can score, and the goals should come.”

Perhaps chief among those returning players is Zach Uhlyar. The senior captain was the third-leading scorer in Class A a season ago with 67 points (30 goals, 37 assists).

Tommy Kimmick, Brendon Mason, and Nick Tamburi also should provide offense.

“Every night, I'm going to come play the game and do whatever it takes to win,” Uhlyar said.

While the offense should have no problem scoring, the defense will need to keep the team out of shootouts. Goalie Nick Ripepi led all Class A goalies with 13 wins last season. A five-man rotation of Kevin Ringling, Brad Delenko, Kevin McKormick, Brian Zovko and Michael Krieger will be the defense.

“We struggled at times against the better teams in the league in keeping the puck out of our net,” Crousey said. “The goaltending this season is the strongest we have had since I began coaching three years ago.

“Nick Ripepi is our go-to guy in net and should give the team a chance to win every night.”

After winning the section title, the Jaguars were knocked out in the semifinal round by familiar foe Westmont Hilltop, who won all three of their meetings last season. In order for the Jaguars to remain a top team, Crousey said, they must challenge and beat the best opponents.

“There are plenty of teams in Class A this season where we have to play our best hockey to have a chance,” he said. “We were 1-5 versus the top teams (Quaker Valley, Mars, Westmont Hilltop and Freeport) last season. That needs to change for us to take the next step.”

The Jaguars are off to a good start after Tuesday's 6-2 victory over Mars, a team that lost in the Penguins Cup finals to Quaker Valley a season ago.

Uhlyar registered a hat trick, and Kimmick added a goal and three assists. Ripepi made 34 saves.

The victory provided the team an early boost, as the Jaguars showed no signs of a hangover from last season.

“That win shows us we are capable of doing it again,” Uhlyar said.

Ed Phillipps is a freelance writer.

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