Fox Chapel, Plum expect success with returning starters at setter
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When Pittsburgh Volleyball Club coaches first approached him with the idea of changing his position to setter about three years ago, Fox Chapel junior Max DePellegrini pushed back.
“I was like, ‘I don't really want to set' because I wanted to hit,” DePellegrini said. “Hitting is, obviously, the cooler job.”
Plenty of club and varsity action during the past two-plus seasons helped DePellegrini get past that perception, and the junior now realizes that with enough of his perfectly placed passes, he might set up Fox Chapel for a run to the WPIAL Class AAA championship match.
“It wouldn't be a stretch to say he's one of the top three (setters) in the WPIAL,” said Fox Chapel coach Phil O'Keefe, who also coaches for Pittsburgh Volleyball Club. “In two years, he's really made a heck of an improvement. … It just looks smooth with him. Some guys, no matter how much they practice it, will never make (setting) look that easy and smooth.”
Fox Chapel and Plum hope seasoned setters will put them in position to contend for section, WPIAL and possibly even PIAA hardware. The Foxes, in particular, are optimistic, as third-year starter DePellegrini will run the show for a lineup that graduated just one starter after reaching the WPIAL quarterfinals in 2013.
“It's very comforting,” O'Keefe said of having a returning starter at setter, “because now we can talk to him more about who he should set and when he should set, rather than simply how to set.”
Hitter options abound for DePellegrini, a second-team All-Section 2-AAA selection last season.
There's senior captain Mike Eiser, an opposite-side hitter who earned second-team All-WPIAL honors last season. In the middle, DePellegrini has junior Jaysen Zaleski, a third-team all-WPIAL selection, and senior Matt D'Amico. And at outside hitter, choices include all-section second-teamer Andrew Tublin, a junior, as well as Ben and Darren DePellegrini — Ben is Max's twin, and Darren is a senior.
“With the team we have, we can get (to the WPIAL finals),” said O'Keefe, who last guided the Foxes that far in 2010. “I like our chances against any of the WPIAL's top teams. We'll be in that mix.”
While DePellegrini is part of an experienced Fox Chapel lineup, Plum junior setter Tyler Arnold is one of the few remaining polished players for the Mustangs, who graduated most of their starters after reaching the WPIAL first round in 2013. Arnold, a second-team All-Section 3-AA selection, will look to classmates Khaynen Yocca and Nathan Kunkel to bury most of his sets. Yocca, a 6-foot-5 middle hitter, earned first-team all-section honors as a sophomore.
“It seems a lot easier to set now,” said Arnold, a second-year starter. “I used to be really frantic and rush to get to the ball. Now, I'm comfortable and confident that I can get a nice pass up.”
Plum coach Mike Larko said he admired the way Arnold dealt with last year's steep learning curve.
“Ideally, you'd like to only have juniors and seniors — guys with experience — play that position, but we felt (Arnold) was able to step up as a sophomore, and he definitely did,” Larko said. “We've pushed him along, and he continues to want to learn and get better.”
For the first time in a few years, Deer Lakes coach Rick Tatrn must decide who should set for the Lancers from among several inexperienced candidates.
Junior Tyler Lindgren and sophomore Josh Noble are his top two options, but he considers as many as five players capable.
“The setter is a real key issue,” Tatrn said. “You can develop kids faster if you have someone who can put the ball where it needs to be consistently.”
Inexperience is a concern throughout Deer Lakes' lineup, though Tatrn still believes the perennially powerful Lancers rank among WPIAL Class AA's best.
“I'm waiting for some light bulbs to go off, where they start thinking, ‘Maybe we can do something this season.' ” Tatrn said. “I think, right now, they have some doubts about themselves. We need to find some confidence.”
Graduation not only spelled trouble for St. Joseph's starting lineup after the 2013 season, it doomed the entire program. The Spartans, reliant on a senior-laden 12-man roster, lost too many players to field a team this season.
“There was some interest late,” said Paul Tomlinson, St. Joseph's coach last season. “But I also told them I couldn't dedicate enough of my time this year. I told them I could help part-time, but I'm not sure they found anyone who could do it full-time.
“I'd like to help resurrect it and help put together a co-op with someone.”
Ford City, on the cusp of folding the season in 2013, found enough players to keep its fledgling team alive this spring.
Second-year coach Casey Cousins said he believes the lack of preseason uncertainty about participation numbers should allow the Sabers to take a step forward as a program.
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