Boys volleyball powers appear to be favorites for WPIAL titles again
Two weeks into the WPIAL boys volleyball season, the teams to beat look a lot like the ones who were the toughest to beat at the end of last season.
Defending Class AAA champion North Allegheny and defending Class AA champion Ambridge were undefeated in match play heading into the weekend and topped their respective Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association rankings for their classification.
Their lone defeats in tournament play? To each other. The Bridgers beat the Tigers in the championship match of the season-opening North Allegheny tournament March 24 after the two split tight matches in pool play.
It's no secret Ambridge (Class AA) and North Allegheny (Class AAA) have established themselves as the favorites to repeat as WPIAL champions. That's no surprise — each has won more WPIAL titles in its respective classification than anyone.
“(The NA tournament) is sort of a preseason measure to see where you're at at the beginning of the season,” Ambridge coach Glenn Freed said. “There's a lot of strong teams there, and beating NA is such a great win for us.”
Ambridge and North Allegheny both welcomed back supremely talented and experienced teams coming into the season. The Bridgers have three reigning all-state players, as selected by the PVCA for Class AA, among their five returning starters from last season's PIAA semifinalist team.
Senior libero Cody Brooks and junior outside hitters Brandon Buck and Lee Smith were all-section, all-WPIAL and all-state picks last season, and senior outside hitter Andrew Stojan and middle hitter Dan Zajac also were honored as standouts among WPIAL players.
“Last year we were a young team, and we did so well,” Freed said. “And this year we have even more maturity with almost everyone back, so to have that in your back pocket helps. We played in the state semifinals, and that experience was great for all of them. They're looking to hopefully go back again.”
Ambridge's top competition within the WPIAL might just be the team it beat in the WPIAL championship match last season. Derry had two returning all-state players — junior outside hitter Matt Vasinko and senior setter Andy Panizzi — among the three players on its roster who entered the season with starting experience.
Junior libero Izaak Fulmer-Moffat also is back, and senior outside hitter Josh Wannmaker returns after missing last season because of a knee injury sustained while playing football.
“Derry has a pretty good tradition in volleyball, and we want to keep that where it's been in the past,” Trojans coach Shawn Spencer said. “We definitely have the goal of competing for the section title and getting back to the WPIAL championship like we were last year — and then try to make a run in the state playoffs.”
Spencer and Freed each mention Deer Lakes, Montour and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart as other title contenders. The Lancers and Spartans were WPIAL semifinalists last season. Derry already owns a victory against Deer Lakes, and Ambridge has defeated Section 1-AA rival Montour.
North Allegheny has yet to play the team expected to be its best competition in Section 2-AAA, Seneca Valley. But the Tigers were 3-0 in the section heading into the Derry tournament Saturday.
North Allegheny has won the past six WPIAL Class AAA titles and nine of the past 10. Led by nine seniors, the Tigers are in their customary position as favorites to win again.
“This particular group is a talented group and an experienced group that's been there before,” coach Dan Schall said. “We certainly want to get back to where they've been and go as far as we can.”
Reigning PVCA all-state selection Tommy Keisling headlines the group. An outside hitter, Keisling is joined by setter Joe Murphy and Suyash Fulay as seniors with three years of playing experience who are leading North Allegheny.
Middle hitters Daniel Rodgers and Luke Koenig and defensive specialist/outside hitter Shawn Rogers also are experienced seniors, and Justin Zweig is a talented senior who did not play last season because of a severe leg injury that Schall compared to that of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware.
“This team really prides itself on playing some real good defense,” Schall said. “Blocking and defending have been trademarks; that's something we really try to emphasize.”
Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.