Thomas Jefferson seeking elusive berth into state volleyball tournament

(Henry Jackson)

Thomas Jefferson's Jessica Jackson receives a ball. (Henry Jackson)

DENVER -- Heartbreak can make for the best motivation.

A year ago, Thomas Jefferson volleyball was in a back-and-fourth match with Mountain View in Class 4A's regional round. The Spartans were seeking the school's first-ever state tournament appearance. Moreover, they were seeking to become the first Denver Public Schools member to reach the tournament since 1984.

Instead, TJ came as close as a team possibly could to the tournament -- losing by two points in the fifth game.

"It was so heart-breaking," said senior Celeste Henderson. "We don't want that again this year."

"That only made us want it this year even more," junior Jessica Jackson said.

Thomas Jefferson's Celeste Henderson. (Henry Jackson)

Thomas Jefferson's Celeste Henderson. (Henry Jackson)

TJ is 14-0 so far this season, ranked No. 5 in this week's poll, and is aiming, once again, for a state tournament berth. And, yes, the girls are well aware that no city school has been there in 29 years.

"We know how long it's been," said sophomore Celeste James. "We talk about it all the time."

"If there's just one drill that we slack off," Jackson said, "we'll have a conversation after it, and we'll be like, 'Alright guys, this is it. This is where we prepare for state.' "

Coach Kathleen Nickless is trying to limit the mentions to her Spartans.

"We do bring it up," she said, "but it's nothing on a daily basis, because being undefeated and having this on our back is a lot of pressure."

Even still, "It's in our mind all the time," James said.

"I go every year and I watch them," Jackson said of the team procession at the Denver Coliseum prior to the state tournament, "and I'm like, 'Man, I want to be there where they walk out.' I just want to be part of that so bad."

The trio of Henderson, Jackson and James are TJ's leaders -- statistically and emotionally. Henderson, the lone senior on the team, and Jackson are captains. James' 218 kills (5.0 per set) and 135 digs (3.1 per set) lead the team, Jackson's 207 and 128 are a close second in both categories. Both girls are outside hitters. Henderson, the setter, has a team-high 337 assists.

James, already 5-foot-11 as a sophomore, played on a national team with USA Volleyball this summer.

"They're just growing with the punches and working hard at practice and doing what they need to do," Nickless said.

Celeste James goes up for a kill. (Henry Jackson)

Celeste James goes up for a kill. (Henry Jackson)

Should TJ take the final step to the tournament this season, expect the city to fall in behind them -- as it did during Denver South's run to the 4A championship game in football last season.

"We're the inner-city schools, and I think all of Denver would rally around us and support us," Nickless said. "And I've heard that from many people. I come from a big family, and people are talking to my family and saying, 'I can't believe how well your sister's team is doing.' They're like, 'We're going to be there.' "

"TJ itself and the community around TJ, they're already so behind us, they're rooting for us. They're on our side," Henderson said. "But the whole city? That would be amazing. I couldn't even imagine what that would feel like."

TJ first needs to get over the regional hump. Should they get a top-eight seed for regionals, the path would be a bit easier as a host.

"We're trying to prepare them to handle the pressure as we get closer to the regional tournament and the state tournament," Nickless said. "The girls that played last year, they're remembering that game against Mountain View and how close we were and how it was right there and we couldn't grasp it. Now is the time to take that challenge and make it happen this year."

(Henry Jackson)

(Henry Jackson)