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Keystone Oaks volleyball looking to repeat as section champions for first time

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Randy Jarosz | for the Signal Item
Braydon Griffiths digs the ball during Keystone Oaks' 3-0 loss to Obama Academy on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at Keystone Oaks.
Randy Jarosz | for the Signal Item
Stephen Marian bumps the ball during Keystone Oaks' 3-0 loss to Obama Academy on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at Keystone Oaks.
Randy Jarosz | for the Signal Item
Kobe Phillipi tips the ball during Keystone Oaks' 3-0 loss to Obama Academy on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at Keystone Oaks.

Ben Van Balen is getting another shot to find success with the Keystone Oaks boys volleyball team.

The Golden Eagles coach was a member of the team during his high school years. While the team never challenged for a section title during his playing days, he now has Keystone Oaks playing at a high level and looking to claim the Section 3-AA title in 2014.

“When I played, we weren't real successful,” Van Balen said. “I want to bring the program up. When I played, I didn't get a chance to say we won the section and made the playoffs. But I have that opportunity as a coach.”

Van Balen — also the coach of the girls volleyball team — was an assistant to previous coach Mike DiPaolo for five seasons. When DiPaolo decided to retire from coaching, Van Balen was a shoo-in for the spot.

“We knew we had a coach who could step up and take that spot,” senior outside hitter Braydon Griffiths said. “It's not like we had to adjust to anyone new. We were really comfortable with him.”

The familiarity helped as the team hasn't missed a beat this season. After winning the Section 3-AA crown in 2013, Keystone Oaks is 4-1 and controls its fate in the section.

The Golden Eagles are tied for first with Thomas Jefferson. But Keystone Oaks holds a win over the Jaguars. If Keystone Oaks can capture the title this season, it will be the first time the team has repeated as section champion. The only other section title came in 2009.

“Everyone came into the season with high hopes of winning the section,” senior outside hitter Kurt Rahner said. “But we can't think we are going to dominate. We can't look ahead. We have to go one game at a time.”

The Golden Eagles have benefitted from a group of strong outside hitters. In addition to the 6-foot-2 Griffiths, Rahner moved into the role after playing libero and outside hitter in the past. Senior Denis Kostic and junior Eddie O'Conner also have been strong.

Middle hitter Vince Lusardi, opposite hitter Dom Agurs and senior libero Stephen Marian are multiyear starters.

Junior Kobe Phillipi has been the surprise of the season. A member of the football and basketball teams, Phillipi debuted this year and has offered the Golden Eagles a solid presence at the setter position.

Van Balen described him as the quarterback of the team's offense.

“He has been the biggest surprise, and mainly it is from how quickly he can grasp the game,” Van Balen said. “Every day is a learning process, and he doesn't forget anything.”

Low numbers have been a problem for the Golden Eagles. With only 12 players on the varsity roster, avoiding injuries has become a priority.

And with Van Balen not being a teacher in the school, recruiting kids has fallen to the players.

“It is tough only playing with 12 guys,” Van Balen said. “Baseball and track take a lot of players out of the game. You have to play with what you have. Numbers are down across the board. When I played, Mt. Lebanon had three Division I players. Now they don't have a team.”

Despite low numbers, Keystone Oaks has relied on above-average talent to get itself in position to challenge for the section title and qualify for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs.

There are no worries of falling short of the ultimate prize — the Golden Eagles just want to enjoy the ride.

“Win or lose, we want to have fun,” Rahner said. “Of course we want to win a section and WPIAL title. But as a senior, I just want to enjoy my time playing with these guys.”

Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at nsmith@tribweb.com or 412-388-5813.

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