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Topping Thomas Jefferson Jaguars a tall task for opposition

| Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, 10:30 p.m.

There are at least two hard-to-miss reasons why the Thomas Jefferson girls volleyball team has won its first five Section 7-AA matches by a combined score of 15-0.

Senior Renee Miller and junior Rachel Stover comprise the Jaguars' towering middle block that has forced opponents to dump shots into the back row just so they can get the ball over the net.

It comes as no surprise it's fulfilling for the 6-foot Miller when she and Stover (6-1) notice opposing teams getting discouraged.

“It's really exciting for me when I can see the other team getting frustrated,” Miller said. “I think Rachel and I have a pretty big intimidation factor on our side, just from our height alone.”

Thomas Jefferson is 7-0 overall, 5-0 in Section 7-AA. The Jaguars, who won the 2001 WPIAL Class AA title, were second at the Big South Tournament and third at the Derry Tournament two weekends ago.

TJ will play at West Mifflin Tuesday, host South Fayette on Thursday, then play in the Lions' tournament over the weekend.

With seven starters back from last year's team, senior setter Mariah Schrum said she believes the Jaguars, who lost to Ambridge in the first round last year, are primed for a playoff run.

“We've definitely improved since last year,” Schrum said. “I think our chances are good.”

It doesn't hurt to have Miller and Stover, who also hits on the right side from time to time. Jaguars coach Ron Kelly does so to take advantage of Stover's versatility.

Stover leads the team with 60 kills, and Miller has 47. That accounts for 71 percent of the team's total. Together, they have 26 blocks.

“They're tall, but they're athletes, too,” Kelly said. “They're coordinated. That's a big plus. They're not just big bodies.”

The presence of returning starters Jessica Albrecht and Lexi German — a pair of outside hitters — as well Miller and Stover gives Schrum, who has 122 assists, plenty of options.

And it's not something she's going to complain about.

“It's definitely an advantage,” Schrum said. “We're able to hit better than other teams just because of our height, and the blocking is great because it helps out our defense as well.”

When opposing teams try to avoid Miller and Stover and attack deep, junior libero Allie Yurkovich (34 digs) typically is waiting.

Yurkovich is one of four returning All-Section selections — German, Miller and Stover are the others — and has committed to play in college at Robert Morris.

Back-row specialist Katheryn Rotthoff also has been an integral part of Thomas Jefferson's defense.

“I think that's why we haven't dropped a match, because we've had really strong defensive players back there,” Miller said.

There also have been a few big contributors up front.

“I think that's where we're better than most teams,” Kelly said. “We have two middles. I don't think a lot of teams have two middles. A lot of them have one very solid middle. We have two.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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