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Trib Cup: Mars volleyball team bolstered by 3-year starters

| Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, 11:18 p.m.
Mars' Morgan Verplank looks to block a spike from Burrell's Makenzie Okopal during the volleyball game at Burrell High School on Tuesday October 16, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Tribune-Review
Mars' Morgan Verplank (30) and Kelsey Bruce (12) work to block a spike from Burrell's Makenzie Okopal during the volleyball game at Burrell High School on Tuesday October 16, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Tribune-Review
Mars' Kelsey Bruce sets up to spike past Burrell's Emma Brown during the volleyball game at Burrell High School on Tuesday October 16, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Tribune-Review

Section titles and trips to the WPIAL quarterfinals are usually a good measuring stick for local volleyball programs.

This season, however, Mars coach Dan Mountain has loftier hopes for a deeper run into the WPIAL and PIAA tournaments.

“We've been setting our goal pretty high to get past the quarterfinals, get into semis and hopefully get into the WPIAL championship,” Mountain said. “Also, we'd like to go far in the state tournament as well.”

For their play so far this season, the Planets are the focus of this week's Trib Total Media/WPXI High School Sports Award feature, and they are a primary reason why Mars is tied for first in the Class AAA standings.

The Planets were 14-3 overall and 10-1 in Section 4-AA heading into Thursday's section-finale match with Knoch and were tied with Freeport for first place.

In recent weeks, the Planets knocked off Burrell, 3-0, on Oct. 16, lost to section rival Freeport, 3-1, on Oct. 11 and shut out Highlands, 3-0, on Oct. 9. Mountain said if his squad hopes to surpass the WPIAL quarterfinals like the 2009 team that made it to the semifinals, it is going to take persistence from a team that's littered with varsity experience.

“Like any season, it's a grind,” he said. “They have remained focused because they want to make sure that they didn't finish the same way that they have. They've lost in the quarterfinals the last two years to Freeport, so they are hoping to take it further this year.”

The Planets field a starting six that has a combined 13 years of varsity experience— a number Mountain hopes will be an advantage in the postseason.

Senior outside hitters Jaden Zimmer and Abby Matusik are three-year starters who have picked up significant kills throughout the year. Middle hitters Emily King and Kelsey Bruce have been two of the team's most reliable players at picking up points at opportune times.

“I'd say our biggest strength is our hitting,” Zimmer said. “We have a big, tall front line and some powerful arms on our hitters. Off the court, we're such good friends, I think that helps us in games.”

Two other seniors with three years of starting experience are setter Katie King and libero Melanie Dinderman. King has been key in setting up her teammates and keeping the opposition on its heels, and Dinderman has been solid defensively in the back row. Junior Kelsey Bruce and senior Morgan Verplank round out the starting six.

“This group of girls has worked incredibly hard, and it's all starting to pay off,” Dinderman said. “We played Hopewell, who made it to states last year, and we were right next to them in the tournament. I think we have a chance of going to states and maybe winning.”

No matter how the season concludes, Mountain said he is proud of how the group has developed over the years, and it will be tough to surpass the success they've had as a whole.

“This is one of the best groups I've had since I've been here,” Mountain said. “They've gotten better every year. We've been tied for the section championship in all but one year. ... This team has been great for us.”

The Planets will learn their postseason fate Monday, and the WPIAL playoffs begin Tuesday.

Brian Graham is a freelance writer.

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