A young Thomas Jefferson High School volleyball team improved as the 2013 season progressed.
The Jaguars eventually qualified for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs where they were eliminated in the first round by Deer Lakes.
This season Thomas Jefferson is also showing improvement throughout the season, but this time around, with eight returning starters, the team started far ahead of last year's squad.
With three matches remaining in Section 3-AA play, Thomas Jefferson controls its own destiny. With a 6-1 section record, Thomas Jefferson is in first place ahead of Keystone Oaks (5-2). After blanking South Park, 3-0, Tuesday, Thomas Jefferson has a section showdown at home against Keystone Oaks tonight.
Thomas Jefferson closes out section play on May 6 with a match at Steel Valley (5-2).
"Our first goal right now is to finish first in the section," Jaguars coach Frank Staffen said. "We control our own destiny."
Thomas Jefferson is ranked eighth in the WPIAL Class AA rankings. It is 5-3 overall with its only match losses coming to Keystone Oaks, Class AA No. 5 Montour and Class AAA Bethel Park.
At the Norwin tournament earlier this year, Thomas Jefferson avenged last year's postseason loss by defeating Deer Lakes.
"Things are going really well this year," Staffen said. "We had a little bump in the road with Keystone Oaks. We had some players missing, but they are back and they are looking forward to [tonight's match].
"This team is much more confident; they don't collapse. Last year when things went bad, they would get down and collapse. This team can fight through anything."
Thomas Jefferson's biggest improvement has come on defense.
"There is a lot of experience coming back on defense," Staffen said. "That is where we were weak last year. A lot of the guys have stepped up their game."
Staffen had to find a way to replace middle hitter Adam Miller, who is now playing volleyball at Temple University, and 6-foot-4 outside hitter Quinton Gardner, who came out last season for the first time and made an immediate impact.
The team centers around Luke Good, a 5-11 senior setter who is a four-year starter and one of the team's captains.
"With Luke he is able to chase the ball down, put the ball on target and make things easy for our hitters," Staffen said. "He makes all the right decisions. He knows when to shoot outside and when to go quick middle. He catches the defense off guard with jump sets.
"He is probably one of the best setters in our section."
Seniors Adam Patrick and Chris Serrao have stepped up as outside hitters to fill the void of Miller's graduation. Patrick is another senior captain along with Good. Senior Gabe Cappetta has emerged this year as another top player at outside hitter as has junior Christian Valecko, a transfer from Butler.
The Jaguars lineup features decent size with Patrick at 6-foot-5, Cappetta 6-2, sophomore Jake Dobransky at 6-1, Serrao 6-0 and Valecko 5-11.
After the section schedule closes, Thomas Jefferson will participate in the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart tournament on May 10, a major event that attracts nearly all the postseason-bound WPIAL teams.
"Most everyone who goes into the playoffs will be there," Staffen said.
"That will be a very good way to see where you stand going into the playoffs."