WPIAL runner-up Bethel Park building to become consistent contender
The last two years have provided quite a few firsts for the Bethel Park girls volleyball team.
If that trend were to continue next year, Shawn Palmer will be one ecstatic head coach whose goal of building a perennial contender has come to fruition.
“This was just a fantastic run with really just a great group of kids,” he said. “Coming in the last few years, our goals were a little bit smaller, but we've really been building to what we were able to do this year.”
For their play this season, the Black Hawks are highlighted as this week's Trib Total Media/WPXI High School Sports Award feature team, and they are a primary reason why Bethel Park is in sixth place in the Class AAAA standings.
Last year, the Black Hawks ended a six-year playoff drought and followed it up with the school's first appearance in a WPIAL championship round this year. The Black Hawks season ended this year at the hands of perennially-dominant North Allegheny.
The end result was not what Palmer and company had hoped for, but the experience and accomplishments that were met along the way were well worth it, he said. He wasn't prepared to make any predictions for next season especially considering the players that will be lost to graduation and the continued success of North Allegheny.
Rather, he'd like to enjoy what his team — including his graduating seniors — were able to accomplish this season, which will continue Saturday against Norwin in the PIAA Class AAA quarterfinals at Baldwin High School.
“I enjoyed all the time I got to spend with these girls from practice to our games,” he said. “It was a blast.
“Even if we do the exact same thing next year, I'd have to say that doing it for the first time with this group makes it a little more special.”
The Black Hawks fielded a team packed with upperclassmen who gained experience last year and sought to harness it and succeed this season.
Stacey Kazalas — a 2012 second team all-WPIAL selection — was one of five seniors to start for Palmer. She led a group that featured setter Kaileigh Poe, middle hitter Sami Simpson, defensive specialist Morgan Stelmaszynski and a California-transfer Hannah Gleeson.
“I talked to the captains very candidly throughout the season and said you have to be the group that starts its own legacy,” Palmer said. “I really think they took that to heart and wanted future classes to really look up to and strive to accomplish what they did.”
Rounding out Palmer's eight-player rotation were three juniors: libero Sarah Storino, middle hitter Tayler Mannarino and outside hitter Olivia Schank.
“They really got a lot of great experience,” Palmer said. “Early on, I thought we would be a senior-led group, but these juniors stepped up and I think took a step in showing what they'll be capable of next season.”
Despite being thrilled with the recent success the Bethel Park program has had, Palmer is a coach with a broader long-term vision. His goal of making the Black Hawks one of the most feared teams in all of the WPIAL is something he will continue to strive for.
“I don't want to diminish anything that we accomplished to this point,” he said. “My goal from day one was to build a program like the North Alleghenys, the Pine-Richlands and the Mt. Lebanons.
“I want us to be a top four team every year.”
Brian Graham is a freelance writer.