The 2013 version of the Thomas Jefferson High School girls volleyball team can be summed up with two words: Size and depth.
"This is the best team I've had in 12 years at Thomas Jefferson," coach Ron Kelly said. "We have more size and depth than any team I've had."
That says a lot because Kelly has led the Jaguars to 12 consecutive postseason appearances.
"This team has more size and depth than our 2004 team that qualified for the PIAA tournament [after tying for third place in the WPIAL tournament]," Kelly said. "We have depth at every position and we have four girls 5 feet 11 or taller."
Thomas Jefferson qualified for the WPIAL Class AA Tournament, which began Tuesday, by posting a perfect 12-0 record in Section 7. The Jaguars, 16-0 overall, are seeded No. 3 in the 21-team bracket and were among 11 teams that received a preliminary-round bye into tonight's first round.
Thomas Jefferson will play host to Kittanning, a 3-0 winner in Tuesday's preliminary-round match against Ambridge Area, tonight at 7:30.
"Three of the four teams we played in non-section matches also qualified," Kelly said. "We beat [No. 5 seed] Seton-LaSalle, South Park, South Fayette and Keystone Oaks.
"Our play in and out of conference earned us a top-four seed. I believe we are one of the top four teams in Class AA. Now we get a chance to prove it."
Indiana is seeded No. 1, Freeport is No. 2 and Hopewell is No. 4.
"The race for the title is wide open," Kelly said. "There is no clear favorite."
Thomas Jefferson's strength is its front row. The Jaguars are led by twin towers Rachel Stover and Renee Miller. Stover is a 6-1 junior middle hitter in her second year as a starter. Miller is a 6-0 senior middle hitter and three-year starter. Both were voted third-team All-WPIAL Class AA last year.
"I don't know of any team in the WPIAL in Class AA that has a better pair of middle hitters than we do," Kelly said. "Sixty percent of our kills are from our middle hitters. And both are also good blockers."
Kelly also has a pair of 5-11 players, Mariah Schrum and Kayla Smith. Schrum is a senior setter and three-year starter. Smith is a sophomore middle hitter.
"Mariah shared the setting duties in a 6-2 offense as a sophomore," Kelly said. "Last year, we switched to a 5-1 with Mariah running our offense. Having Kayla in the middle has allowed us to move Rachel to the right or left side when we want to change up our offense."
Schrum and Miller are two of five seniors in Thomas Jefferson's starting rotation. The others are 5-9 outside hitter Lexi German, 5-8 outside hitter Jessica Albrecht and 5-4 senior back-row specialist Katheryn Rotthoff. All three are two-year starters.
"Lexi has committed to Carlow College," Kelly said. "She's one of the more vocal players on the team. Lexi and Jessica will play a big part in how far we go. When opponents key on our middles, we need Lexi and Jessica to step up and give us some offense from the outside."
The other two players in Kelly's starting rotation are 5-8 junior libero Allie Yurkovich and 5-6 sophomore back-row specialist Natalie Miller [who is no relation to Renee Miller].
"Allie has accepted a scholarship to Robert Morris," Kelly said. "Natalie's older sister played for me a few years ago."
Kelly feels Thomas Jefferson's success will hinge on how well the Jaguars play in the back row.
"If we can serve well, play good defense and pass well, we have a legitimate chance of winning the title," Kelly said. "At the start of the year, we were averaging three missed serves per game. Now it's only 1.5 per game."