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Knoch junior becomes volleyball standout after taking mother's advice

| Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Knoch's Celina Sanks celebrates with her teammates after scoring against Freeport earlier this season.

Knoch's Celina Sanks gladly admits that sometimes mother knows best.

Sanks made basketball her first love when she was in elementary school. But when she reached seventh grade, her mother suggested she take a swing at volleyball.

“At first, I didn't want to do it because basketball was my sport,” Sanks said. “My mom (Mary Jo) said I should go for one day, and if I didn't like it, I didn't have to go back. The first day after I came out of practice, I was saying how much I loved it, and that I couldn't wait to go back.”

Mary Jo, an avid runner who completed the Boston Marathon last year, could have a major impact on her daughter's athletics.

A 5-foot-10 junior middle hitter, Sanks has emerged as one of the top players in the WPIAL and attracted attention from several Division I colleges, including Georgetown, North Carolina-Wilmington and Youngstown State.

She's taken unofficial visits to Georgetown and Division III Franklin & Marshall. She hopes to get her first scholarship offer by next spring.

“She probably couldn't play at Penn State, but a smaller Division I school, she could definitely play for,” Knoch coach Diane Geist said. “It's just that at certain schools you have to be a certain height just to see the front row.”

Sanks said her favorite position is outside hitter but wouldn't mind moving to the back row if that helped her college prospects.

“She's a smart player, and she has the physical ability and brains to be a strong hitter,” Geist said. “And her back-row skills also have gotten so much better.”

Sanks earned All-WPIAL Class AA third-team honors as a sophomore while doing most of her damage as a middle hitter.

Last winter and spring, she played outside hitter for the 16 Premier Zack team of the Pittsburgh Elite Volleyball Association — a Junior Olympic club — and competed in tournaments in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. She helped lead her team to a first-place finish at the East Coast Championships in Pittsburgh in late May.

Sanks said club volleyball has helped get her name out to recruiters.

For now, Sanks is focused on helping Knoch advance as far as possible. The Knights (9-5, 7-3) compete in Section 4-AA with WPIAL powerhouses Mars and Freeport but are closing in on a playoff berth.

Sanks leads Knoch in kills (175), digs (75) and blocks (65). Those statistics don't count the two tournaments the Knights have participated in this season. Although she's posted impressive numbers, Sanks is quick to praise her teammates.

Sanks is part of a strong junior class that gives Knoch the promise of another strong season in 2013. Other 11th graders who stand out at the net include outside hitter Schaely Renfrew, opposite side hitter Savanna Steffen and middle hitter Mary Zellhart.

“I thought I would have to step up more this season,” Sanks said. “I'm really proud of all of my teammates. They've taken the pressure off me. There are multiple players who can hit and dominate at the net.”

Sanks has started for three years in volleyball and will be a third-year starter at forward in basketball this winter. Her jumping ability gives her a boost in both sports. She's reached 8 feet, 9 inches on a standing jump and 9-10 on a running jump.

“If there's an overpass (by the other team to the Knoch side of the net), she can put it down in front of their 10-foot line,” Geist said. “You don't want to be on the other side of the net when that happens.”

Paul Kogut is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-224-2696.

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