Norwin's Warden retires volleyball coaching post
Al Warden's distinguished coaching career began in 1982 when he led the girls junior high program at Norwin.
Warden took over the boys varsity program at Norwin in 2004.
The Knights were WPIAL qualifiers 13 times in the past 14 seasons, and advanced to the PIAA tournament seven times.
But Warden won't be back as Norwin's head coach next season; he is retiring from his teaching career.
“I am taking advantage of a retirement incentive offered by the district,” Warden said. “I am retiring from teaching, but will continue to assist the girls program on a year-by-year basis.
“I would think I will be in the gym with the boys once in a while, depending on the coaching staff.”
The 58-year-old Warden, a lifelong Irwin resident who started teaching in 1981, compiled a career record that he estimated being 198-50.
During Warden's tenure, Norwin was a WPIAL runner-up three times, in 2005, ‘12 and ‘14. The Knights also ended up third in the WPIAL in 2004, and qualified for the state playoffs for the first time that year.
Norwin finished second in the state in 2005, and third in the state in 2012.
“I have coached so many athletes that have been from quality families,” Warden said, “and were high achieving student-athletes because of the importance placed on these students to succeed. The support of the Norwin volleyball community has always been great and a reason why we had the teams that we did.”
The Knights were led this past season by senior setter and team captain Remington Lojas, who was named second-team all-section despite missing seven matches. Lojas tore his ACL playing basketball but decided to hold off on surgery until after volleyball season.
“Coach Warden's career as a teacher and coach is nothing less than astounding,” Lojas said. “To be able to have an impact on kids in the classroom as well as outside of it — he was without a doubt one of the best teachers and coaches that I have ever had.
“His coaching approach is unorthodox compared to other coaches. He instilled in us a hard work ethic to the point that we knew what he expected of us, and we would not give anything less. Also, he showed us how to love the game and enjoy it as much as he did.”
Warden is a 1977 Norwin graduate. While he did not compete in volleyball in high school, he did go on to play in the club program at nearby Cal (Pa.).
There's little doubt who had the biggest influence on his volleyball career: Sheron Watson, Norwin's hall-of-fame girls volleyball coach.
“In high school, there was no boys team,” Warden said. “Sheron Watson invited myself and a few other guys to practice with the girls team. That is when I fell in love with the sport.”
Warden also has been involved in the Catholic volleyball league, coaching at the middle school level; as well as the Pitt Elite (ages 16-18) Junior Olympic volleyball program, where he took numerous teams to the USA nationals tournament.
In the classroom, Warden specialized in technology education and was mainly an electronics teacher. He and his wife Christine have one son, Tyler, who played volleyball at Norwin from 2004-07 and was a two-time All-WPIAL and one-time all-state selection.
In Warden's final season as head coach at Norwin, the Knights finished second in section play, advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals, and posted a 12-4 overall record.
Along with Lojas, other senior players on the 2017 squad consisted of outside hitters Matt Schaich and Brady Gross, libero Andy Halza, middle hitters Grant Saunders and Zane Kaigler, right-side hitter Andy Chenot and defensive specialist Tanner Carr.
“I feel a little weird talking about myself so much,” Warden said, “when I just had so many kids that committed the time and effort to be good at a sport that most of them did not start until ninth or 10th grade — when many top WPIAL and PIAA teams had athletes who started playing in seventh grade.”
Schaich, Halza and the 6-foot-3 Saunders, the Knights' tallest player, were named first-team all-section. Chenot, like Lojas, was a second-team all-section pick. Schaich and Halza earned third-team All-WPIAL nods.
Lojas (first team) and Halza (second team) also were all-section selections as juniors.
“I know for me, without a doubt, volleyball ended up being my favorite sport throughout high school,” Lojas said, “and I owe it all to Mr. Warden.”
Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.