Defending girls volleyball champions face tough road back to finals
Mt. Lebanon girls volleyball coach Mike Switala had WPIAL Player of the Year Caroline Grattan in the team's lineup last season, but he doesn't think the Blue Devils' Class AAA district title was purely a function of talent.
“We probably, arguably, were not the best team in the WPIAL last year,” said Switala, an assistant coach last year who takes over for coach Jeff Schilling, who retired. “But we felt we were probably the most prepared team.
“We did a really good job as a coaching staff scouting, and I think the girls did an excellent job executing.”
With Grattan gone to Temple, he expects preparation to again be a strength for his team, which will be anchored by all-WPIAL middle hitters Alexa Pavlick and Megan Riemer and outside hitters Keeley Foor and Mary Baich.
And even without Grattan, Switala has faith his players can contend.
“They respond. They have faith because we have a track record of winning,” he said.
Last season's WPIAL runner-up, Fox Chapel, lost five players to graduation and will get an influx of talent from sophomores moving up to varsity this season. Consequently, coach Sara D'Angelo will look to returning outside hitters Megan Holingsworth and Michaela Patsko as well as defensive specialist Betsy Slagle for leadership.
“The sophomore class is a talented class, but you can't teach experience,” coach Sara D'Angelo said. “We're just going to have to learn from making mistakes.”
Section 3 rivals North Allegheny and Pine-Richland also appear to be contenders, returning WPIAL all-stars Ashley Leto and Gabby Olson, respectively.
Graduation took a toll on defending Class AA champion Mars as nine seniors and seven starters moved on.
That group created a lot of enthusiasm among the younger players, though, something that has coach Tami Caraway hopeful.
“It's been great. I had a very large turnout to my open gyms and our conditioning that we were doing at the track,” she said. “They were excited by how far the girls were able to go last year, and they want to see how far they can go again this year.”
At times, 15-20 girls would attend workouts in the summer. Now, with the season just under way, Caraway has been encouraged by the competition she's seen among those vying to replace the core of the title-winning team.
Middle hitter Kelsey Bucer, setter Natalie Grice, libero Maggie McKernan and outside hitter Alexi Zika are among those returning from last season's team. Caraway said their biggest challenge in leading Mars back to the playoffs will be building chemistry with their younger teammates.
“It's finding the right combination of players that will help us as a team to be successful,” she said.
Among those looking to challenge a young Mars team will be Hopewell, last season's WPIAL runner-up.
Coach Terry Borkovic is hopeful his experienced front row will bring along some newer faces in the back row. He's also looking forward to hitter Gabby Stala taking an outside spot and setter Jordan Trombetta stepping in to run the offense.
If all goes right, he expects to contend for a title again, even if WPIAL all-star and four-year starter Shatori Walker-Kimbrough won't be in the lineup after graduating in the spring.
“I think by the time the playoffs come around, we'll be a contender,” he said. “We'll be definitely a top 10 team so, hopefully, we'll be where we've been.”
WPIAL all-star Alexis Schrecengost and Freeport are favorites in Section 4, and Seton-La Salle returns eight players who were key contributors to a quarterfinal run last year.
Greensburg Central Catholic coach Heather Meyer hopes to turn to a seasoned group of seniors to lead the Centurions' title defense. Unfortunately, she doesn't have any.
This season, only 4 returning players — six graduated — were underclassmen a year ago, which puts them in leadership roles not just now, but into the future.
“It's very rare to have a team with no seniors on it whatsoever,” Meyer said. “However, I think the four returning players that I have are going to step into that role really well.”
Meyer anticipates a need to improve defensively over the course of the season, which she believes will translate into better offense, too. She's looking to setter/middle hitter Leah Bisignani, outside hitters Lauren Nolfi and Megan Stunja and defensive specialist Rachel Moore to hold new players accountable and show them what the expectations — which Meyer won't compromise on — are.
“Even though they're young, my expectations of them are still really high,” Meyer said. “My philosophy is if you don't expect it, they're not going to give it you.”
Bishop Canevin returns nine players with starting experience, including senior outside hitter Ashley Grimm, who was an all-WPIAL player last year.
“I believe there are 5-7 teams that could win the WPIAL this year,” Canevin coach Kevin Walters said.
Adam Bittner is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.