Volleyball integral part of Thomas Jefferson coach's life
Volleyball has been a part of Ron Kelly's life for more than three decades.
Kelly, 51, of Pleasant Hills, was introduced to the game at Ambridge High School. A 1979 graduate, he went on to play at Penn State University, when the men's program was still in its infancy.
After graduating, Kelly coached at Ambridge, Baldwin and the Pittsburgh Triangles (now known as the Pittsburgh Elite club team), before arriving at Thomas Jefferson.
Kelly took over as the Lady Jaguars' head volleyball coach in 2001.
“I think once you play competitively, you just get hooked on the game,” he said.
When Kelly was a sophomore at Ambridge, the school started a boys' volleyball team. He loved the game, lettering for three years at Ambridge.
He also played football and basketball in high school.
In the late '70s, there were no club teams for young, aspiring volleyball players.
Kelly competed on a Junior Olympic team that played some regional games, and also attended volleyball camps — where he received attention from college coaches at both George Mason and Penn State.
There were no scholarships offered back then — just an opportunity to play on the team.
For Kelly, getting a chance to be a part of the team was more than enough.
“I remember we got free books and that was it,” Kelly said.
The Penn State men's volleyball team was just three years old when Kelly arrived as a freshman for the 1979-80 season. He played for coach Tom Tait, who founded the program and coached there until 1989.
Kelly recalls the California teams dominated the scene back then, and Penn State was among just a few East Coast teams, along with Rutgers, Ohio State, Navy and Princeton.
Despite being a new program, Penn State qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in 1981, during Kelly's sophomore year.
The highlight of Kelly's college career came during his junior year when the Nittany Lions defeated Southern California in the 1982 NCAA semifinals to advance to the championship game.
But the Nittany Lions were defeated by UCLA in the NCAA finals.
It was the first time Penn State ever played in the championship game, and Kelly was glad to be a part of it.
Thomas Jefferson's head coach was a setter and outside hitter at Penn State. One of his teammates was Mark Pavlik, who has been Penn State's head coach since 1995.
Kelly says the game has changed significantly since he played.
“It's a lot more offensive now,” he said. “The guys are taller and a lot more athletic. The whole game is so much faster.”
One thing that hasn't changed is Kelly's love for the game.
“I think volleyball is the ultimate team sport,” he said. “It's a total team game. There's a lot of intensity and speed. It's got it all.”
1n 1983, Kelly graduated with a degree in business and began working in banking. But he wanted to continue his involvement with the volleyball.
He returned to the Ambridge girls' volleyball program as an assistant to then-head coach Donna Pfeiffer.
“It was great to be able to show them the things I had learned in college,” Kelly said.
In 1990, Kelly and Mike Scahill started the boys' volleyball program at Baldwin High School. Kelly remained there until 1993, the year his son, Colton, was born.
His temporary retirement continued through the birth of his daughter, Nicole, in 1996.
Then, in 2001, Kelly belielved it might be time to get back into coaching. Shortly after discussing it with his wife, Sandra, she saw an ad for the girls' coaching position at Thomas Jefferson.
“It was fate,” Kelly said.
Kelly has loved being back courtside for the past 11 seasons, and hopes to be around for many more.
“Coaching keeps me involved and keeps me young,” he said.
NET NOTES: The Thomas Jefferson girls' volleyball team had clinched a WPIAL Class AA playoff berth at the start of this week's schedule.
The Lady Jaguars and rival Elizabeth Forward were tied atop the Section 7AA standings with 9-1 records, followed by West Mifflin (7-4) in third place.
Rounding out the section standings were Yough, Southmoreland, Belle Vernon and South Allegheny.
Thomas Jefferson's starting lineup consists of junior setter Mariah Schrum; middle hitters Renee Miller, a junior, and Rachel Stover, a sophomore; junior outside hitters Lexi German and Jessica Albrecht; senior opposite-side hitter Jessica Hinkle; sophomore libero Allie Yurkovich; and back row specialists Ashley Kohley, a senior, and Katheryn Rotthoff, a junior.
There is no lack of height on the Lady Jaguars' roster this season.
Kelly uses a nine-player rotation that includes a pair of 6-foot middle hitters in Miller and Stover.
In addition, the local squad gains more height with the 5-10 Hinkle as a right-side hitter, the 5-10 Schrum at the setter position, and the 5-9 German at outside hitter.
The team's top reserves include Alexandra Barone, a senior setter; Gabrielle Gentilcore, a senior back row specialist; Allie Saltzman, a junior right-side hitter; Laura Andreola, a junior back row specialist; Lauren Wainauskis, a junior outside hitter; and Sophie Potts, a sophomore outside hitter.
“I really like this team,” Kelly said. “We are a tall team so our blocking and hitting is pretty strong.”
Jennifer Goga is a freelance writer.