Pine-Richland volleyball duo spark team
When attempting to take a program from the bottom to the top, a coach gladly will take hard-working players with athletic skill. At Pine-Richland, Dave Neely took over the Rams' boys volleyball squad with visions of building the program into a perennial title contender.
Neely has the team pointed in the right direction, as proven by the fact he helped guide the team to the playoffs last season. With the help of some veteran players and some athletes who came out from other sports, the volleyball team has improved from last year to this year.
Two of the Rams' more predominant players — setter Kevin Kunkel and hitter Alan Jacks are — big reasons why.
“Alan is a basketball player, and his sister actually talked him into coming out for the volleyball team,” Neely said. “Kevin, as soon as I saw him play at open gyms, I knew he was a setter. He has good volleyball sense, is a great kid and leader.”
Jacks came out as a junior and said he wished he had joined the team sooner but is glad to be playing with so many good friends.
Jacks' basketball background helps him in volleyball.
“There is a lot of stuff that translates, especially the quickness,” Jacks said. “The hardest part is shifting focus to the next play … not what just went well or didn't.”
Jacks said volleyball is more of a mind game than people realize, and Neely makes the game fun with the way he has the team practice. It is all business on the court, but working hard and learning can be fun.
“His defense is getting there, his passing is not bad and he has a good work ethic and dedication,” Neely said. “He is passionate and a leader on and off the court.”
Kunkel is an important part of the team. He guides the offense, and with his increased abilities, including the use of a jump set, he can single-handedly create mismatches.
“My sophomore year, I set everything (with my feet on the ground),” Kunkel said. “This year, I jump set almost all of them. That holds my blocker and creates a one-on-one situation for my hitters.”
Kunkel said Jacks is his most trusted hitter but stills feels good distributing the ball, because he knows all his hitters have talent and ability.
In addition to winning some games, Jacks said what makes volleyball special is the camaraderie this team has.
“It's cool, because the team is made up of some of my better friends in school,” Jacks said. “Mike (Jones) and Kevin got me interested in playing, and Sam (Dunsmore), Tim (Williams), Nate (Roberts) and Alan Dinisi … we came out to have a good time and go out (as seniors) doing something we like to do.”
Fun is part of it, but Jacks said making a run at a WPIAL championship is a top priority.
“That is the goal,” he said. “We keep progressing and keep working on fundamentals.”
Jacks said Kunkel is a great setter, and he was named All-WPIAL last season.
“Kevin has a great swing and gets better every day,” Jacks said. “We communicate very well, and if I see something, I can tell him and we can take advantage of it. He can put the ball where I need it and get through to the next play.”
Kunkel added that the progression of this team under Neely has been great. Going from winless one season to the playoffs the next speaks volumes.
“Dave is a good coach,” Kunkel said. “We brought in some new guys this year. We are a bigger team and feel we can compete with anyone. I feel like we are five times stronger than we were last year. Once we get things clicking, we should be ready just in time for playoffs.”
Neely said when Kunkel is in control of a game, the Rams are tough to beat.
“He brought us up a level,” Neely said. “There would not be a playoff run if not for him. I can't ask much more of him.”
Pine-Richland was in control of its destiny as of press time, needing to win three of its final four matches to make the playoffs.
Kunkel was not happy about a tough late-season loss to Fox Chapel, but he put things in perspective.
“You can't dwell on the past,” he said. “You have to let the mistakes go and go play the team in front of you.”
The goal is clearly to get to the WPIAL championship game for the Rams, but Kunkel and Jacks agree they want to lay a positive foundation for the future of the program.
“We were able to get some more guys to come out,” Kunkel said. “We will be taking a day to go to the middle school to show the youth what (varsity volley is all about) and try to show the youth (how we have grown).”
Jerry Clark is a sports editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-779-6979 or firstname.lastname@example.org.