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Volleyball

Freeport once again team to beat in WPIAL Class AA volleyball

| Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, 12:18 a.m.
Freeport's Zoe Pawlak passes during a volleyball practice Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Freeport's Zoe Pawlak passes during a volleyball practice Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.
Freeport High School's Grace Ward returns the ball during volleyball practice at Freeport High School on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Freeport High School's Grace Ward returns the ball during volleyball practice at Freeport High School on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.
Freeport High School's Jess Kelley spikes the ball during practice at Freeport High School on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Freeport High School's Jess Kelley spikes the ball during practice at Freeport High School on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.

This isn't the first time Freeport has been looked at as the team to beat in girls volleyball, but the Yellowjackets might be more prepared than ever to meet that challenge.

Freeport, the defending WPIAL Class AA champion, brings back a solid group of experienced players led by all-state junior outside hitter Zoe Pawlak and should be in contention to bring home its third WPIAL title in five years.

Yellowjackets coach Tom Phillips knows his team is viewed as the favorite, but he feels this year is different than the last time they were defending champs.

“After we won in 2010, the next year we were ranked No. 3 to start the year, but I wasn't sure how good we really were,” Phillips said. “But I think when you're the champ the year before, and you bring back a player like Zoe, that's a pretty good indicator you should be pretty decent.”

Freeport still has some voids to fill after graduating all-state outside hitter Alexis Schrecengost and second-team all-WPIAL libero Brittney Bianco, but the Yellowjackets feel they have the players to stay on top.

“I definitely think we have the potential to win WPIALs again,” Pawlak said. “I feel like we have a really strong team, not just with the older girls, but also the younger ones. They're going to be able to fill those roles, and they can really play.”

Freeport's offense again will be directed by senior setter Grace Ward, a third-team all-WPIAL pick in 2013. Ward has plenty of hitting options to pick out, including Pawlak, senior Karlie Hill and junior Morgan Ruppersberger on the outside.

Ruppersberger played in the middle last year, but Freeport's depth at that position allowed her to move outside. The Yellowjackets return starting senior Jess Kelley, have up-and-coming 6-foot junior Nicole Lesko and gain senior Macy Smolic, who sat out last season, at middle hitter.

“This year, we have a lot of height, which is something we haven't had at Freeport,” Phillips said. “Most of our hitters are (at least) 5-foot-10, even Grace is 5-10, and that helps so much defensively when you have a tall setter.”

Defensively, Freeport will turn to junior Meredith Tirdel at libero and senior Amanda Hewitt on the back row, while Phillips also has young depth at setter with sophomores Maddie Christy and Maggie Ward.

Pawlak will remain the focal point of the Freeport attack, however, which is why Phillips is happy to see her almost fully recovered from an ankle injury that sidelined her for a month this summer.

While Pawlak was out, the Yellowjackets continued their summer work, which included a tournament win at Penn State with their all-state player on the sidelines.

“The girls learned to play without Zoe, and I think it was a good thing for us,” Phillips said. “It gives our girls more confidence, and then when we add Zoe back, we should be that much better.”

“For a while, my ankle was pretty bad, and I couldn't play as well as I thought,” Pawlak said. “It's a lot better now, and it's been recovering faster.”

Phillips does expect his team to be challenged, even in its own Section 4-AA.

Knoch has to replace its own all-state player, Celina Sanks, but still has plenty of young talent and versatile senior setter Katie Bozzo to lead the way. Deer Lakes brings back senior setter Casey Gaston and junior outside hitter Jenna Dvorsky, and Phillips is wary of the talent on a well-coached Obama Academy team that moved from the City League into the WPIAL and Section 4-AA.

“I told the girls that right now, we're paper champs,” Phillips said. “We're supposed to be good, but we have to go out and prove it, and we're going to get everyone's best shot.”

The A-K Valley's Class AAA teams also should be improved this year, with Plum bringing back a pair of 6-foot-3 seniors in Rachel Satira and Courtney Zezza and Fox Chapel improving after a rebuilding year last season.

In Section 1-A, local teams stand to benefit from the move of West Shamokin to Class AA. While Greensburg Central Catholic remains the favorite, teams such as St. Joseph, Springdale and Leechburg — who might have the most returning with senior hitters Kassidi Horrell and Marissa George — have a good chance at an improved 2014 finish.

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