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TJ volleyball out to defend section title

| Monday, March 20, 2017, 7:15 p.m.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
Deer Lakes' Dan Hutchinson (20) records a point after colliding with Thomas Jefferson's Dan Francis (11) at the net during their quarterfinal playoff game at Deer Lakes on Wednesday, May 18, 2016.

The Thomas Jefferson boys volleyball team is hoping for a repeat performance in 2016.

The Jaguars won the Section 3-AA championship last season with an 8-2 record, earning the third section title in boys volleyball in school history.

“We always set our expectations high,” coach Frank Staffen said. “We would like to repeat as section champs, but we know it will be difficult and very competitive this year. South Park and Seton-La Salle will be key matchups for us.”

Key players who graduated from last year's team include Andy Aul, Jake Aul, Jake Dobranski, Steve Dunlap and Jared Kelly. Dunlap led the team in kills a year ago.

Nonetheless, the Jaguars are an experienced group. The team leader is 5-foot-10 senior setter Dan Francis, who was a first-team all-section selection in 2016. He is a third-year starter, and led the Jaguars in assists last season.

Five other returning starters are Dan Jordan, Logan Burnsworth, Tommy Campbell, Rocco Kempa and Ryan David.

Jordan, a 6-2 junior, and Burnsworth, a 6-3 junior, are middle hitters, and both were all-section selections a year ago. Burnsworth led the team in blocks.

“They are very strong,” Staffen said.

Campbell, a 5-11 senior; Kempa, a 6-1 senior; Ian Cenci, a 5-10 junior; and Nick Urbanowicz, a 6-3 junior; are TJ's top outside hitters.

“Campbell will be our main outside hitter,” Staffen said. “Urbanowicz is a newcomer this year. He brings some height and jumping ability to our team.”

David, a 5-10 junior, returns at the libero position.

Francis, Jordan, Burnsworth, Campbell, Kempa, Cenci and David are returning lettermen; Francis and Kempa are serving as co-captains this season.

Rounding out the squad are senior Joe Ducko (OH); and juniors Eddie George (OH), Sean Graves (DS), Kevin Koett (OH/MH), Ben Milas (DS) and Jordan Stosic (DS). Brandon Westwood (MH) is the only sophomore on the varsity roster. Leading freshman prospects include E.J. Baker (OH/MH), Riley Hovan (S), Evan Kempa (OH), Jarrett Niecgorski (OH) and Sam Richard (OH).

The Jaguars, who are competing in Section 2 in Class AA this season, finished with a 9-6 overall record last year.

Other section teams are Bishop Canevin, Keystone Oaks, Seton-La Salle, South Park and Steel Valley.

Thomas Jefferson rolled to seven consecutive section wins to wrap up last year's section crown.

The Jaguars, who also won section titles in 2006 and ‘14, finished ahead of South Park (7-3), Obama Academy (7-3), Seton-La Salle (3-6), Keystone Oaks (3-6) and Steel Valley (1-9) last season.

During the regular season, the Jaguars defeated Keystone Oaks, Steel Valley and Seton-La Salle twice, and Obama Academy and South Park twice.

“We got off to a slow start with injuries and players in positions they were not used to playing, and their timing was off,” Staffen said.

TJ was led last year by a strong senior corps with Dobranski, an outside hitter/defensive specialist; right-side hitter Jake Aul, outside hitters Andy Aul and Dunlap; Kelly, at the libero position; and Justin Rondinelli, a backup at middle hitter. Dunlap and Kelly were four-year lettermen.

Seven members of the squad were all-section selections, including five first-team honorees.

Kelly, Dobranski, Francis, Jake Aul and Dunlap were first-team picks.

Jordan and Burnsworth, were second team and honorable mention selections, respectively.

Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.

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