First-year coach Van Balen looking to lead KO girls volleyball to success
When Keystone Oaks needed a new coach for the girls volleyball squad, it didn't have to go far — it just had to look to the bench.
Former assistant Ben Van Balen replaced previous coach Mike DiPaolo, who accepted a position as an assistant coach with the Point Park women's volleyball team.
“I have been looking for a head coaching position,” Van Balen said. “I have been playing the sport since eighth grade. Now that I am not playing as much as I used to, I had been looking into coaching.”
Van Balen joined the Keystone Oaks boys coaching staff in 2009 and spent one season with the girls squad in 2011. He played for the Keystone Oaks boys volleyball team during his time at Keystone Oaks. After graduating, he played at Mercyhurst.
To help lead the squad, Van Balen has brought in assistant coach Roxy Minemyer, who played at Rutgers.
Van Balen will lead a senior-laden team in his first season; the squad features seven seniors and with five juniors.
Senior setter Makenzie Kunig has been at the position for three years, senior Jamie Hans plays outside hitter and senior Jenn DeFazio will be the libero.
“We have a pretty big rotation,” Van Balen said. “We are stacked. It is the kind of thing you want in your first season.”
Three seniors — outside hitter Jess Long and defensive specialists Alex Ferrari and Sarah Long — should help provide a strong defense.
The team is breaking in first-year varsity players at middle blocker in senior Katie Palmer and junior Sydney Cowan.
“(Palmer) had limited time on the varsity level last season due to the seniors we had,” Van Balen said. “Both are kind of learning on the spot.”
Along with a new coach, the Lady Golden Eagles will compete in a new section. After struggling to compete with powers like Central Valley, Montour and West Allegheny — the latter two have moved up to Class AAA — in Section 3-AA, Keystone Oaks was moved to Section 6-AA.
The Lady Golden Eagles will compete against squads such as East Allegheny, Seton-La Salle, South Fayette, South Park and Steel Valley. Keystone Oaks opened the season 1-1 in section action with a 3-0 win over Steel Valley and a 3-0 loss to South Park.
“The last couple years, it had been a pretty tough section,” Van Balen said. “I think the WPIAL did a good job bringing the group of talent together it did in this section. There will be some really good competition. As far as I can tell, the section is wide open.”
Van Balen said his top priority is to make sure the athletes remain focused on the student part of being a student athlete. But once the studying is done, making a run to the postseason will be a top goal.
“The ultimate goal is to make the playoffs,” Van Balen said. “When the regular season ends, we want to be one of the top three teams in the section.”
Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-388-5813.