Steel Valley volleyball rekindling program's glory days
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Back in the day, the sport of boys volleyball was king at old Homestead High School, which later merged with Munhall to form what is known as Steel Valley.
With legendary coach Victor Sullivan at the helm, Homestead won 15 WPIAL championships and eight PIAA titles and finished as state runner-up four times.
“That's something we talk about with the guys,” Steel Valley coach Alex Hinsey said. “The rich history in volleyball is a reminder of the way it used to be.”
Hinsey, a graduate student at Pitt, was the starting setter for the 2007 PIAA Class AA championship team at District 3 Exeter. Now in his second season at Steel Valley, he has had high hopes of a volleyball resurrection.
“One of the big things the coaches talked to the kids about last year — and many of those guys are in it this year — is it's going to take time,” Hinsey said. “Just trust what we're saying, and take everything we teach you into game situations.”
Apparently, the players have been listening.
Steel Valley won just four matches last season, but the team has more than doubled that total a year later.
The Ironmen of 2014, under Hinsey, are stirring memories those past teams of the Sullivan era.
Steel Valley heads into the regular-season stretch run with a 9-2 record and six matches remaining with the hope of not just qualifying for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs but earning a respectable seed. Who knows? Maybe there's even a bit more in store for the Ironmen.
The program last won a WPIAL title in 1985 — long after Sullivan had retired — and before that, it finished as PIAA runner-up in 1978.
“The volleyball team is becoming the talk of Steel Valley,” junior libero Steve Ruffing said. “That's not the way it's been around here. But coming up with a season like we're having now, people are taking notice.”
Both of Steel Valley's two losses went a maximum five sets.
The Ironmen have relied heavily on the additions of two of the school's starting basketball players, and each missed one of the team's losses.
Tyler Lewis, a 6-foot-9 junior middle hitter, was vacationing when Steel Valley lost to defending Section 3-AA champion Keystone-Oaks. Dom Keyes, a 6-6 junior left-side hitter, was fulfilling a basketball commitment on the night of a loss to Thomas Jefferson, last year's section runner-up.
“Dom Keyes is our best player on the left side,” Hensey said. “He's left-handed. He hits the ball so well. Steve Ruffing picks up a lot of balls, and we really rely on his passing ability as the libero. Tyler Lewis is good offensively, but he's probably better defensively. With his height, he gets up to the net and forces the opponent to alter his approach. That makes it easier for our defense.”
Thanks to some of the returning players from last season's team, Lewis and Keyes responded to constant prodding.
“It was mostly the players who recruited them to play volleyball,” Hensey said. “They were telling those guys that we could really be a good team. They got them to believe, and they've been great additions. They've done a good job picking up the game.”
Hensey is being assisted by Matt Hamilton, another grad student at Pitt and a former standout volleyball player at District 3 Central York. Both coaches also played at the club team level at Pitt.
Hensey agreed he's somewhat of “a volleyball junkie,” though he claimed to be a better soccer player in high school. He also coaches a Pittsburgh-based Junior Olympics girls volleyball team known as P3R and consisting of high school freshman-aged players. The team recently competed at a tournament in Philadelphia.
“The biggest thing about playing volleyball and being successful at it is to learn to just have fun,” Ruffing said. “You've got to keep your cool and don't get frustrated. The coaches we have now have really put in our heads to just go out there and have fun and play, and you'll succeed.”
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