Deer Lakes volleyball perseveres through in-season coaching change

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Wednesday, November 3, 2021 | 11:37 AM


One word can be used to describe the Deer Lakes girls volleyball season: necessity.

Necessity struck when the school’s assistant principal became the team’s coach during the season. It hit again when the team was forced to rally back in its final game — and nearly did.

And, at the end, a program in apparent turmoil just weeks ago now seemingly is heading in the right direction.

Ryan Aleski took over the team in late September. He and Deer Lakes athletic director Chuck Bellisario declined to comment on what happened with the program’s previous coach, Laurie Caraher, saying only it “didn’t work out.”

Whatever the cause, it left the Lancers without a leader of the program. Caraher had accepted the coaching job in August when Victor Morais stepped down a month earlier.

Suddenly, the Lancers were looking at hiring a third coach in a matter of three months. That’s when Bellisario called up Aleski, a fellow administrator.

“Chuck is a wonderful AD, and he’s a good friend of mine. He knew I had a history in volleyball. I played in high school,” said Aleski, who had Bellisario serve as an assistant coach with him. “It started off as a one-week thing, kind of, ‘Hey, we’re going to figure out what’s going on.’ One week turned into the rest of the season.

“We had a group of five seniors that had four different coaches in four years. They kept the team together along with the junior class. They worked every single day. The first day that I walked into the gym, they were like, ‘What are Mr. Aleski and Mr. Bellisario doing here?’ ”

But the Lancers started winning, closing the season with five straight victories and ending up with a 9-3 mark in Section 5-2A, finishing second behind South Allegheny.

In the WPIAL Class 2A first round, Deer Lakes lost to Seton LaSalle, 3-2, going down 2-0 before winning the next two sets and forcing a decisive fifth set, which the Rebels won 15-7.

“Last year they exited the playoffs 3-0, and it wasn’t really close,” Aleski said. “So I feel like they didn’t have the experience in that type of match. … But I couldn’t be prouder of the effort they put in.”

Aleski is no stranger to the game. In addition to his time playing in high school, his brother, Brendon, played collegiately at St. Francis and was a successful high school boys coach at Montour for 15 years.

“I was able to organize a practice and run some drills,” Aleski said. “But it’s not about me, what I did. It’s about the perseverance of the young ladies and how they had goals set. It didn’t matter who was captaining the ship. They were set to reach their goals.”

Kelsey Sufak transitioned to the libero role when Aleski came aboard, becoming the “vocal leader within the team.” She became a second-team all-section player.

Nikki Fleming, who got minimal playing time before Aleski took over, became a constant contributor toward the end of the year and was a team captain.

While those two wrapped up their high school careers, Aleski believes the team has a bright future in 2022.

“Our junior class is really special,” he said. “They’re where the talent is, to be honest with you.”

Outside hitter Maddie Friess and middle hitter Kaylee Lipp were first-team all-section picks.

Delaynie Keiser, another outside hitter, moved to setter and ended up third-team all-section. Jessica Sullivan, another setter, was second-team all-section.

It will be an intriguing group to coach next fall, and, while the team has indicated to Aleski that they would like him to continue coaching them, he will not.

But he will help in finding his replacement.

“I would love to find a person who is going to bring stability to the program,” he said. “There’s a wonderful group of girls coming back. Unfortunately, with my schedule and my position, it’s tough to balance that with my family, as well.

“That said, I’m not going to leave them high and dry. My next goal is to find the right person to take the reins of Deer Lakes volleyball for the next five to 10 years.”

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