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Winning WPIAL title a 'tall task' for North Allegheny volleyball

| Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner
North Allegheny senior outside hitter Ava Mosbacher at practice Wednesday August 29, 2012. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
North Allegheny senior outside hitter Ava Mosbacher at practice Wednesday August 29, 2012. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
North Allegheny senior setter Maura Nolan at practice Wednesday August 29, 2012. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

The only thing bigger than the expectations heaped on the North Allegheny girls volleyball team is the height of its front line.

The Tigers are savvy enough to recognize that neither of those outsized qualities automatically earns them a spot among the WPIAL elite at the end of the season.

“They're big — a really big team with a lot of depth and a lot of tall bodies,” North Allegheny coach Heidi Miller said. “We have a lot of versatility offensively, but the game of volleyball typically boils down to who can pass and serve — and if we can pass and serve effectively, I think we'll be pretty good.”

North Allegheny, which began its season at the Mt. Lebanon Invitational Saturday, features seven players who stand at least 5-foot-10.

Erin Swartz (6-2) was one of the top sophomore middle hitters in the WPIAL last season, and the junior is joined in the North Allegheny middle by 5-10 Katie Humes and 6-1 sophomore Meg Morningstar.

Juniors Danielle Wall (5-11), Jamie Robatisin (5-11) and Jessica Samuels (5-10) and seniors Ava Mosbacher (6-0) and Ashley Leto (5-9) will roam the outside.

“It definitely helps to have some blocking and hitting when you're pretty big like we are,” Robatisin said. “Being tall on the inside and outside gives you an advantage.”

But as Miller said, the first hit is what's most important. All that blocking and hitting ability won't do any good without crisp passing.

“Being big doesn't always correlate to wins if you can't do the first touch first,” Miller said. “I keep emphasizing that with the kids, and they know they'll need to get good sets. On paper, we look like a good team — but we've got to be a team getting it done on the court as well.”

Its collective height isn't the only thing “on paper” making North Allegheny look so good as the season gets under way. The Tigers are the highest- ranked WPIAL team (No. 5) in the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll.

But the Tigers have company. Not only is the WPIAL the only district in the state with three ranked teams in one classification — all three of those teams are in North Allegheny's section.

Defending WPIAL champion Seneca Valley is ranked No. 8, and reigning WPIAL runner-up Pine-Richland is No. 9.

During each of the past four seasons, the three Section 3-AAA rivals have comprised three-quarters of the WPIAL semifinals. At least two of them have been in the semifinals and/or one in the final every year since 2003.

“You like that level of competition.” Miller said. “I think if you can play and be good in our section, you can be good anywhere.”

And following Miller's credo, good teams have good setters. North Allegheny has the lone returning setter from last season's all-WPIAL first-team, senior Maura Nolan. Also among the six players who begin the season with significant starting experience on the varsity level are senior libero Kristin Mitchell and senior defensive specialist Rachel Samuels.

Miller estimates a dozen of her players are being recruited to play in college.

“If we're passing well, we can run a quick attack and run a really diverse offense,” Miller said. “We have a good swing coming from a lot of different directions and have many options.”

“We've got to take it one match at a time,” Robatisin said, “but (a WPIAL title) is definitely a goal. Definitely WPIALs and, even looking further ahead, states. But we know we have to work.”

Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.

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