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Norwin seniors take aim at WPIAL title

| Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Randy Jarosz | For the Norwin Star
Norwin opposite side hitter Kevin Zabelski hits the ball over two Penn-Trafford blockers during the WPIAL Class AAA consolation match on May 23, 2013, at Baldwin High School.

Two seasons ago, after the Norwin boys volleyball team lost to North Allegheny in the WPIAL championship match, Nick Nguyen was standing with the rest of the sophomores as coach Al Warden doled out the Knights' medals.

“He, ‘Whenever you guys are seniors, this had better be a gold medal,'” said Nguyen, now a senior. “From there on, we (thought) this senior year had to be our year.”

The Knights, traditionally one of the strongest teams in WPIAL's Class AAA, began its 2014 season last week searching for the WPIAL gold that they have yet to achieve.

Norwin qualified for the postseason in every season but one since 2000, and the Knights finished as WPIAL runner-up in 2004 and 2012. Both times, they lost to North Allegheny, which has won seven straight WPIAL titles and 10 of 11 overall. The Knights host the Tigers in a nonsection match April 14.

“Without telling coach, we've kind of got that one circled,” Nguyen said.

This season, the Knights return four starters from the team that finished third in the WPIAL and advanced to the state tournament, bowing out in a first-round match against — once again — North Allegheny.

Nguyen returns as the team's starting setter after splitting time last season with Mitch Farabaugh. Fellow seniors Aaron Shaffer (outside hitter), Kevin Zabelski (opposite side hitter) and Jay Grushecky (middle hitter) also return as starters.

“Those guys were starters last year, and from a playing standpoint, we're asking them to do the same thing they did and step up a little bit higher this year,” Warden said.

The other three starting positions are up for grabs: libero, where senior Dan Conwell is competing with Robby McMaster; outside hitter, where senior Jake Kljucaric, junior Zeke Kljucaric and sophomore Gage McCracken are competing; and middle hitter, where Jake Kljucaric and junior A.J. Guffey are competing.

“I've still got three positions up in the air, which is very unusual for us,” Warden said. “I think the nice part about that is maybe I've got some depth at some positions, too. Usually, we're not real deep. Not that we're drastically deep, but I've still got people competing for spots. It's nice to have competition.”

Norwin's biggest strength could be up front, as the Knights boast size with the 6-foot-6 Zabelsky, 6-foot-3 Grushecky and 6-foot-2 Shaffer.

“If we get a good pass, our offense is basically all over the court — pins, middles and back row,” Shaffer said. “It's pretty hard to stop if we get a good pass.”

The Knights opened their season last weekend with the Norwin Tournament. They traveled to Baldwin on Monday and will host Hempfield in their section opener at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

“We like to take it one step at a time,” Nguyen said. “(A section title) is what we've got our eyes on right now, and then hopefully we can make a deep run in the playoffs.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830, via email at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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