Deer Lakes volleyball team aims to maintain place among WPIAL elite
Zach Guiciardi heard the buzz that surrounded Deer Lakes' most promising boys volleyball players during the past several years. And he sees the banners hanging in the high school gymnasium — some for section titles, others for WPIAL honors, even one for a state championship — as testaments to those players' abilities.
The spotlight now sits on Guiciardi and his classmates, who get a chance to earn their place among Deer Lakes' all-time greats.
In the midst of their most successful stretch since the late 1970s, the Lancers are again among the serious contenders for WPIAL and PIAA supremacy. They're ranked No. 6 in PIAA Class AA by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association; Ambridge (No. 1), the defending WPIAL champion, and Derry (No. 3), the returning WPIAL finalist, are the only other teams on the list from District 7.
Much of Deer Lakes' hope rests on the team's five-man senior class to continue a run that includes five outright or shared section titles in the last six seasons and top-three finishes in WPIAL Class AA the past four years.
“We've had some great players come through here in the past few years,” said Guiciardi, a senior and returning starter at setter. “I feel like it's our time. We can prove ourselves and show that it wasn't all just (the previous great players), that we were there pushing them along the way.”
Guiciardi and fellow seniors Don Szoszorek, Kody Buttyan, Seth Colton and Nick Roberts contributed to Deer Lakes' PIAA tournament-qualifying performance last season, when the Lancers (9-1 in section play) split the Section 2 crown with Derry Area, placed third in the WPIAL and made a first-round exit at the state level with a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to District 10 champion Cochranton.
Graduation removed second-team all-WPIAL libero Jason Garland and first-team all-WPIAL outside hitters Sean McTigue and Tony Nicotra from the equation.
Garland's departure created Deer Lakes' most glaring opening.
“Jason might be the hardest kid to replace,” coach Rick Tatrn said. “He was every bit as instrumental in what did two years ago (winning WPIAL and PIAA titles) as our hitters.”
Sophomore Brandon Philistine is the top candidate to step in as the new libero, and junior Nick Noble, a setter, also will serve as a go-to defensive specialist.
The bright side for Deer Lakes' inexperienced back-row players: There are two elite blockers up front.
Szoszorek (6-foot-6) returns after earning second-team all-WPIAL honors as a middle hitter. And Buttyan, a 6-5 middle hitter, received third-team all-WPIAL recognition.
Both Szoszorek and Buttyan have become primary offensive options after seasons as secondary considerations to Deer Lakes' acclaimed outside hitters.
“It's pretty exciting because I've never had that experience before,” Szoszorek said. “I've never really had a chance to hit outside, right side, back row and all that.”
Said Buttyan: “I like the role; it keeps me more competitive and on my toes.”
Colton (5-10), Nick Roberts (6-4) and sophomore Jake Roberts (5-11) fill the void at outside hitter.
Deer Lakes opened the season strong, winning the Norwin tournament Saturday with a 25-13 victory over Bishop Guilfoyle. After a morning session that included shaky performances against Peters Township and Beaver County Christian, the Lancers established a rhythm and finished atop a 16-team group that included Class AAA powers Latrobe and Norwin.
“The seniors were able to find some chemistry, and that afternoon, they basically made things happen for us,” said Tatrn, whose team begins section play Thursday at home against Ford City. “We have to build the team around them for now.”