Mustangs earn important win against Hempfield
The Plum varsity boys volleyball team traveled through the preseason and the first several weeks of the regular season working to become a more well-oiled machine, as a mix of veterans and new varsity players got used to communicating with each other on the court.
With Section 3-AAA matches becoming increasingly important in the race for the WPIAL playoffs, a home match with Hempfield was key in not only keeping the Mustangs firmly in the race, but it showed that the players were coming together more to meet the challenges.
Plum fought off a stingy Hempfield team, and the 3-1 victory helped the Mustangs bounce back from a pair of tough losses to Penn-Trafford (3-0) and Norwin (3-0).
“It was a huge battle with Hempfield,” Plum head coach Mike Larko Jr. said.
“I like the way we came out and fought. I wish things were a little cleaner, but they didn't quit when things went against them. They continued to take it to Hempfield, which is what we needed.”
Plum had started out 2-0 in section play with a 3-0 win over Penn Hills and a dramatic five-set triumph over Latrobe.
“We were right with Penn-Trafford in games two and three, but just couldn't hold the lead, and we didn't play very well against Norwin,” Larko said.
“But the guys didn't get down on themselves, and they knew what they had to do against Hempfield. They got the job done.”
The first game against Hempfield was close, but Plum pulled out a 25-23 win as sophomore outside hitter Nathan Kunkel ended it with a kill.
The Mustangs led 22-18 in game two, but the Spartans came back. The game went past the 25-point mark, and Hempfield ended the game, 28-26, on a controversial in/out call on a serve.
The Spartans' serve appeared to land beyond the end line on Plum's side of the court, but the officials ruled that the ball was in, and the game was over.
But with the match now tied at one game apiece, Plum came back and dominated game three. The Mustangs built as much as a 12-point lead at different points in the game before closing it out, 25-13.
“That tough call (in game two) didn't go our way, and things like that are going to happen,” Larko said.
“I told the guys before game three to not put it in the officials' hands. I wanted them to go out and take it, and they did just that.”
Plum appeared to have the match wrapped up as it led 23-16 in game four of the best-of-five match. However, Hempfield made an 8-0 run to take a 24-23 lead.
A serve out of bounds ended the run, and the Mustangs got the next point on their serve to make it 25-24.
Plum closed out the game and the match as Kunkel blocked a Hempfield kill attempt.
“When we came in (to the new season) at first, there were some nerves, but the seniors really helped us and reminded us how important we were going to be this season,” Kunkel said. “As the season goes on, we've become more comfortable.”
Larko said Kunkel, as well as fellow sophomores Tyler Arnold, a setter, and 6-foot-5 middle hitter Khaynen Yocca, have provided a boost to the team.
“The sophomores have done a good job, especially Arnold in a setting role,” Larko said. “That's a huge position for any player, let alone a sophomore. The seniors are good upperclassmen leaders and are leading them well.”
Senior outside hitter Bryan Parker led Plum against Hempfield with 13 kills, while Yocca and senior middle hitter Matt Shepherd added nine and eight kills, respectively.
Yocca had three blocks, while Kunkel finished with two. Parker ended the match with a team-best six aces.
“When everyone works as a team, it's really nice,” senior outside hitter Dan Szurley said. “This was a huge win for us. We want to get to the playoffs, and we have to improve every game.”
Larko said junior Brenden Grande, who has missed the early part of this season because of an injury suffered in the preseason, was expected back at practice earlier this week.
Grande got a little bit of varsity time last year, and Larko expects him to contribute more as he gets up to speed more over the next week or so.
“We missed him in practice and in games, and adding him to the mix will add to the competition and improve the team,” Larko said.
Plum was slated to face section foe Gateway on Tuesday in a match that was to be contested past the deadline for this week's edition.
The Mustangs will visit the new gym at Penn Hills for the first time Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in a rematch of the section opener for both teams.
Plum steps away from section competition on Tuesday for a home match with WPIAL power Seneca Valley at 7:30 p.m.
Fox Chapel Tournament
Plum faced Bethel Park for the second time this season on Saturday, and the Black Hawks eliminated the Mustangs in the quarterfinals.
“We were putting guys in different positions and seeing which guys would step up,” Larko said.
Playing without Parker and senior Tyler Mitlo, Plum went 2-2 in the first pool-play round, beating Gateway, 2-0, and losing to Bethel Park, 2-0.
The Mustangs advanced to the second round, where they suffered a pair of losses to both Peters Township and Deer Lakes.
“Both were close matches, but we just didn't do enough to get wins,” Larko said.
Peters Township defeated Bethel Park in the semifinals before beating Penn-Trafford in the finals.
Michael Love is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412- 388-5825 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.