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Thomas Jefferson volleyball qualifies for PIAA tournament

| Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, 9:09 p.m.
The Thomas Jefferson girls volleyball team qualified for the 2017 PIAA tournament.
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The Thomas Jefferson girls volleyball team qualified for the 2017 PIAA tournament.

It was perhaps the biggest victory of the WPIAL season for the Thomas Jefferson girls volleyball team.

Considering the circumstances, it may have been the best win in recent memory. And it definitely was the most dramatic.

The No. 4-seeded Jaguars overcame a 2-0 deficit to defeat No. 6 West Allegheny, 3-2, in the WPIAL Class AAA consolation match at a raucous, tension-filled Baldwin gym.

“It was a huge win for us,” said TJ's Morgan Yurkovich, a senior setter. “Coming back and winning the third set completely changed the game for us. We found out a lot about ourselves, and that we are capable of so much. The score doesn't matter as long as we play our game; the rest will take care of itself. We made a choice to fight and to push each other until we gave everything we had, and that got us the win.”

The final score read 22-25, 21-25, 25-22, 25-13, 15-5.

“I think the win showcased the talent as well as the heart of our team,” said Savannah Vernet, a right-side hitter and one of five senior starters in the Jaguars' lineup against WA. “I'm extremely proud of the way we played, and at our resilience. When we play with heart and energy, I truly believe there's nothing we cannot accomplish.

“After being down 2-0, we developed a sense of urgency and realized we would have to fight for every point to come out on top. We started the third game strong, and kept that momentum. This win was, in my opinion, our biggest yet. The chance to go to states is not something many teams get.”

Thomas Jefferson rolled through section play with a 12-0 record this season, then went 3-1 in the WPIAL playoffs. Against WA, it was the first time the Jaguars were forced to rally from a 2-0 deficit.

“That was only the third match we played that went five games,” coach Ron Kelly said. “I think the first couple games, we were playing well, but we were making little mistakes. We made a couple of substitutions, and it changed the complexion of our team.

“The key was the girls made a couple of plays and just rode the momentum. After our last timeout in Game 3, we were down 18-11 and we got a kill off the serve. Our next server had two aces, and we scored a couple of points off our defense. The confidence grew, and the girls were talking more. When we are playing our best defense, that fuels our runs. Early on in Game 4, we made two great plays and scored off them. West Allegheny became frustrated and started making mistakes.”

Thomas Jefferson never trailed in Game 5 and went on an early 5-1 run to grab a 7-3 advantage.

A service ace by Sydney Moran, an energetic junior libero; plus kills by senior MH Sarah Fullard, sophomore setter Abby Chalovich and sophomore OH Tanner Patrick triggered the Jaguars' attack.

Patrick, Fullard and Yurkovich were instrumental in expanding the TJ lead to 10-4; the Jaguars then racked up five consecutive points to win by a comfortable 10-point margin.

“Once we settled down and the nerves went away, we realized that this could be it for the season,” Fullard said, “so we just played how we all knew how to play, and everything else took care of itself.”

Down the match's home stretch, Yurkovich set up a kill by senior OH Makayla Falk, West Allegheny committed two unforced errors, and senior DS Nicole Saltzman clinched the decision with two points from the service line.

“None of us were ready for our season to end,” Falk said. “(It) really shows the kind of heart our team has to fight back after two straight losses and win the next three.”

Saltzman provided an ace on match point, and the TJ team and fans erupted in delight.

“Serving game point was really exciting. Our coach always says you cannot miss game-point serve, so to ace and win was really exciting,” Saltzman said. “We have been working nonstop since June to reach our goal of states, and Saturday's game definitely was a reflection of all our dedication and hard work. I was extremely proud of how we played. I think we realized that if we were gonna lose, we wanted to go out playing our very best, and that translated into a win.

“Momentum was also a big thing. It was definitely difficult to get it back on our side after losing two games. But once we got it, we took it and ran. After the first two games, we played our best. Our back row was getting everything up, Morgan's sets were spot on, and our hitters were being smart and aggressive. I think it said a lot about our team's passion and perseverance. We are driven and push each other. We have seen our abilities in practice, so we know what we can accomplish.”

Thomas Jefferson captured the Section 3-AAA championship during the regular season, its eighth section title in nine years.

The Jaguars stormed past No. 13 West Mifflin, 3-0, and No. 5 South Fayette, 3-1, in their first two playoff matches, before losing to WPIAL champion and No. 1 seed Knoch, 3-0, in the semifinal round.

“I think either Saturday's win, or our South Fayette win, were our biggest wins of the season,” Yurkovich said.

TJ qualified for the state tournament with its third-place WPIAL finish.

Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.

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