Alle-Kiski Valley flush with volleyball prowess

Sunday, September 20, 2020 | 5:15 PM

When Plum girls volleyball coach Kelsey Bonk observed her team’s senior night ceremony Thursday before a match with McKeesport, she was reminded of the potential for the season with a rather experienced squad.

The Mustangs, who dropped to Class AAA in the offseason, feature eight seniors, including 6-foot-2 all-state middle hitter and Pitt commit Makayla Jackson. They hope to turn around the program from recent struggles, including a 3-21 combined section record the past two seasons.

“We had just one senior last year, and she got injured before the season with a broken ankle,” Bonk said. “We’ve been so young for so long. A number of the seniors were playing varsity as sophomores. Makayla’s been playing since her freshman year. Teams often go through some challenging years to get to better ones. Hopefully, we can put it all together this year.”

The Mustangs, who last made the WPIAL playoffs in 2017, swept past Greensburg-Salem and McKeesport to start Section 3 play. Plum was 10th in the first Western Pennsylvania Coaches Association Class AAA poll released last week. They are expected to contend in the section with the likes of Class AAA No. 1 Franklin Regional and Kiski Area.

The Alle-Kiski Valley teams first had to contend with the prospect of losing an entire season amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. When the PIAA gave the green light to the fall sports teams, planning began for the management of matches with a 25-person indoor limit in place.

Bonk said while each team has their own plan, she is pleased to hear things are progressing positively overall. Section matches are expected to wrap up October 22 and 24 with a tentative playoff to follow.

Plum joins three other area teams, Knoch (seventh, Class AAA), Freeport (eighth, Class AAA) and Leechburg (eighth, Class A), in the early season top 10 of their classifications.

Knoch and Freeport, 2019 WPIAL champions in Class AAA and Class AA, respectively, are back in the same section after the Yellowjackets moved up to Class AAA.

The neighboring rivals lost successful and sizeable senior classes from last year but hope to remain in the WPIAL mix. They met last Tuesday in the first of two section matches this fall with Freeport prevailing 3-1.

“We have a young team, but things are going well so far,” Yellowjackets coach Tom Phillips said. “We have a great group of kids who work hard every day in the gym. We have nine freshmen who have come in and challenge the older girls. It’s a pretty competitive environment.”

Several area teams are bolstered by the return of all-section performers. Joining Jackson in that group are Mustangs teammate Megan Bologna (senior, outside hitter), Kiski Area’s Rebeka Fowler (senior, libero) and Sydney Joyce (sophomore setter/outside hitter), Knoch’s Morgan Jack (senior, setter), Deer Lakes’ Cameron Simurda (senior, outside hitter) and Cristiana Saldamarco (senior, libero/defensive specialist) and Freeport’s Erica Lampus (junior, libero/right side hitter) and Gianna Dreher (senior, outside hitter).

Other 2019 all-section performers back hoping for big things this season are Burrell’s Avery Bain (sophomore, middle hitter) and Anna Novak (junior, outside hitter), Valley’s Jaylen Thomas (junior, outside hitter), Springdale’s Kylie DiLeo (senior, outside hitter), Leechburg’s McKenna Pierce (senior, setter), St. Joseph’s Stella Swanson (junior, outside hitter) and Riverview’s Lizza Novikova (senior, outside hitter/libero), Alexis Sykes (senior, outside/right side hitter) and Katie Zatawski (senior, outside/right side hitter).

Simurda also earned All-WPIAL third-team honors for the Lancers. First-year coach Victor Morais, who most recently headed up the girls program at Upper St. Clair, takes over a Deer Lakes team that went 8-4 in Section 5-AA.

In addition to the Knights and Yellowjackets, Kiski Area, Leechburg, Deer Lakes, Burrell and Riverview seek return trips to the WPIAL playoffs after all qualified a year ago.

“We’ve been trying to find the right combinations in our lineup, and without the tournaments this year, we only had the chance to play ourselves before the start of section play,” said second-year Kiski Area coach Jodie McCartney, who guided her team to an 11-3 record in section play last year.

“The girls have worked hard, and we’ve been able to make adjustments through our first couple of matches. We played really well against Franklin Regional (3-1 loss on Thursday). We are making progress each time we step on the court.

After four seasons, Highlands is back as an official member of the WPIAL.

The Golden Rams, who played an independent schedule last season, are on board in Section 5-AAA with Freeport, Burrell, Armstrong, Hampton, Knoch and Mars.

Captained by seniors Bella Scolaro and Elaina Bushman and sophomore Eve Johnson, Highlands has endured a 0-3 section start.

“We are so excited for this season,” said Golden Rams coach Caroline Bain, a former Oakland Catholic standout who went on to play in college at Robert Morris. “It’s a surreal feeling that we formed just last year, and now it’s the real deal. … The girls have worked so hard, and they already are surpassing some of the goals I had set for them. They are really surprising some people. I am excited to see what they can do the rest of the season.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at or via Twitter .

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