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Trib Cup: Thomas Jefferson volleyball strong in the middle

| Thursday, April 20, 2017, 9:27 p.m.

The Thomas Jefferson boys volleyball program isn't afforded the luxury of so many other WPIAL Class AA teams.

Without a middle school team to serve as a feeder program to the varsity, it can often be a challenge to maintain continuity at the high school level, let alone teach incoming ninth graders the fundamentals of the game and expect them to compete right away.

But that's exactly what the Jaguars have done. A year after Thomas Jefferson earned its third section title in school history, the Jaguars stand in second place in Section 3-AA at 4-1. But it hasn't come without a lot of hard work.

“It's been a slow process,” Thomas Jefferson coach Frank Staffen said. “When I first took over the program back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, just making the playoffs was unthinkable. … It's just been hard work … making playoffs and then competing for a section championship and then becoming section champs, now going to the playoffs. Our next goal is to keep stepping higher, shoot for that WPIAL crown. That's our next goal.

“It's tough. We don't have a middle school program like some schools,” he added. “If you look in Class AA, usually your top schools have middle school programs. … They have a big feeder program, where we don't get kids until ninth grade and we have to hurry up and develop them fast, which is a little tough to do sometimes.”

“Not having a middle school team, it's tough because we don't have the basics down, but the kids here usually grab it pretty quick, so it's not bad,” senior setter Dan Francis said. “But compared to the other schools with the middle school teams, it's different, but we catch on pretty well.”

At 6-4 overall and poised for a second consecutive trip to the postseason, the Jaguars are highlighted as this week's Tribune Review High School Sports Award feature team, leading to Thomas Jefferson's second place ranking in the Class 5A standings.

The Jaguars' strength this year is right down the middle of the court, with their experienced group of middle hitters and setters. Junior middle hitters Logan Burnsworth and Dan Jordan both return after earning all-section honors last year, while Francis mans the setter position as a third-year starter.

“We have a real strong middle with both Dan Jordan, Logan Burnsworth and Dan Francis,” Staffen said. “The combination of those three are without a doubt the anchor of our team.

“It helps us out a lot because it frees up our outside hitters, because (opponents) are so afraid of our middle sometimes.”

It's been the play of those outside hitters like senior Tom Campbell who have complemented the team's strength in the middle. Campbell, along with defensive specialists Rocco Kempa and Ryan David, have created a balanced lineup that has propelled the team toward the top of the section standings yet again.

But the Jaguars know there is still work to be done. If the standings hold to form, the section title will come down to a May 9 meeting against South Park, a team that defeated Thomas Jefferson in their first meeting earlier this year.

“Winning sections last year was kind of unexpected after the two losses in the beginning of the season, and now this year having lost a lot of people, but still maintaining second in the section right behind South Park,” Francis said. “It just pumps us up and makes us want to win more.”

Alex Oltmanns is a freelance writer.

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