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Coaching change doesn't change playoff focus for Plum volleyball

| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The Plum varsity girls volleyball program saw a change at the top in the offseason.

Kory Flaherty, the team's head coach the previous couple of seasons, stepped away from the position, as he is temporarily working at a branch of First Niagara Bank near Buffalo, N.Y.

Flaherty's wife is completing a medical residency at a hospital in the area.

He has remained with the program as a volunteer assistant, and is helping with the program whenever he can.

Mike Larko Jr., who also is the Plum boys head coach and a former head coach of the Burrell varsity girls volleyball team, took control of the head-coaching duties, and, he said, things have gone pretty well.

“Kory was here as much as possible over the summer before he had to move to New York,” Larko said.

“He comes in to help out when he can. The girls have reacted well to it. I am pleased with that.”

Plum qualified for the WPIAL playoffs out of Section 4-AAA last year, and the Mustangs finished section play 9-3.

Oakland Catholic and Shaler also made the playoffs from the section.

As the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, Oakland Catholic made it to the semifinals and lost to North Allegheny in the third-place match.

Plum suffered a first-round loss to Mt. Lebanon — it's eighth-straight first-round setback.

Despite losing a group of seven seniors who formed the core of last year's team, Larko said a lot of talent returns with sights set on getting back to the playoffs and breaking the playoff streak.

“We have a deep, versatile lineup,” Larko said.

“We know we have options if we get into certain situations. It's made for good competition in practices. The girls know they can't take any plays off because the competition is there.”

The Mustangs hope to use their height to their advantage this year, as 6-foot-3 juniors Courtney Zezza and Rachel Satira return, as does 6-foot-1 sophomore Clairissa Hankinson.

“(The height) definitely is a luxury to have,” Larko said.

“Many teams don't have that. You can't teach height. The girls are still developing their skills and coming along. Rachel is starting to get looks from (colleges). Clairissa is still young, but she had a good (Junior Olympic) season. Courtney had a great summer of work.

“It's nice to have that height, but a lot of our opponents have players who have played high-level JO ball, so it is not something they haven't seen. It's nice for a block, but hitting-wise, if we can't set and pass, we can't use that height.”

Senior Sarah Carroll and sophomore Madison Gestrich have been in the mix for the setting duties.

“They are good and still have room to develop,” Larko said.

Junior Alexis Bialota and seniors Alexis Witkovitz, Erin Kelly and Colleen Brown form the core of the defensive unit.

Larko said the outside hitting corps of seniors Michelle Theiss and Allison Centa, juniors Jen Rombach and Sam Brown and sophomores Amanda Kiefer and Megan Rengers is deep, and there has been good competition in practice.

“We connect well on the court,” Witkovitz said.

“We have good chemistry. We push each other and make each other better. We're excited to see what the season has in store for us.”

Larko said that just because the team has height and talent, it doesn't mean the opposition will just roll over.

“We've worked on getting the players in position to do well. Now they have to execute,” he said.

Plum kicks off its season Saturday at 8:30 a.m. at the Butler Tournament.

The Mustangs also will play at the North Allegheny Tournament at the end of the regular season and host their invitational on Sept. 14.

In addition to its section slate, which begins Tuesday at 7 p.m. against McKeesport at home, Plum will play nonsection contests against Peters Township and Baldwin.

“We play two very tough out-of-section opponents and we are going to some tough tournaments again,” Larko said.

“That's the way we want it. We have to come ready to play. Even the teams that aren't perennial WPIAL powerhouses can beat you if you aren't prepared. You can't take a night off, and the girls know it.”

Michael Love is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5825 or at mlove@tribweb.com.

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