Derry boys volleyball program rebuilding with tenacious team

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Tuesday, April 19, 2022 | 1:50 PM


For years, Derry has resided among the elite high school boys volleyball teams in the WPIAL, challenging for championships and sending players off to college.

Then, covid-19 hit, and the Trojans, like many other teams, were knocked down.

“Going into the pandemic,” Derry coach Shawn Spencer said, “when everything was shut down, we had a very senior-oriented group of kids that would have been playing (in 2020). It also meant a chance for some of the underclassmen to get some experience.”

The cancellation of the entire season meant the end of the veteran players’ high school careers and a missed opportunity for the underclassmen.

With no funding in the Derry Area School District for volleyball prior to the junior high level, Spencer assembles rosters to include candidates with little or no experience in the sport.

Nonetheless, in his 17 seasons at Derry, Spencer has coaxed the Trojans to five WPIAL Class 2A championships appearances — they fell short of winning on every occasion — three PIAA semifinals and eight quarterfinals.

“We’ve been the bridesmaid every time (in the WPIAL), but I’m proud of every team I’ve coached,” he said. “I feel like no matter how far they’ve gone, they’ve given the effort. It’s just that sometimes you fall short. It’s all part of sports.”

Derry, which counts 6-foot-6 opposite hitter John Kerr, a junior at No. 3 Penn State, as its highest-profile alumnus, is attempting to assemble another foundation for success. After bowing out of the WPIAL playoffs a year ago in the first round, three returning starters lead the Trojans this season.

They were 2-2 after a 3-1 nonsection win over Class 3A Armstrong, but it wasn’t because of a lack of grit.

Derry opened with a 3-0 setback to District 6 West Shamokin, losing the first two games by close margins (25-22 and 26-24) before splitting outcomes with a pair of nemeses, losing to Ambridge, 3-2, and earning its first victory, a 3-1 decision over Deer Lakes in the WPIAL Section 2 opener.

The Bridgers and Lancers each have won a WPIAL championship, and Ambridge (nine) and Deer Lakes (one) have combined for 10 PIAA titles since joining Class 2A at its inception in 2007.

A scheduled section match April 7 at Mars was moved to May 2 after multiple players became ill, and the Trojans were unable to produce a team.

“We were all battling nausea and stomach pains,” Derry setter Matt Rhoades said. “We were OK the next day, but we just couldn’t play that night.”

Rhoades, a 5-11 senior who is attracting college attention mainly from Division III-level schools, is joined by 6-1 senior Nick Allison and 6-2 junior Gabe Carbonara as returning starters from the Trojans’ 2021 team, which was bounced from the WPIAL playoffs by Hopewell.

Rhoades began to lament when reminded of the amount of time he and others have lost during the past two years by shutdowns.

“We had some games last year, but there were so many times we were shut down with covid,” he said. “The year before that, we didn’t even have a season. I really haven’t played much since my freshman year. We’re just trying to get some chemistry. We’ve got some talent. I do believe we have the pieces. It’s just a matter of learning to play together the right way.”

Said Spencer: “We’ve been learning on the fly. We didn’t have tremendous success last year, but we still have some experience. The kids have a pretty good understanding of the tradition that volleyball has had here. They’ve been working pretty hard to invigorate that.”

With just a handful of matches in the books, Spencer appears to have gained some added perspective.

“I don’t know where we’ll end up,” he said, “but I like the tenacity we’ve shown to compete and play.”

Derry’s four seniors — Rhoades, Allison, Morgan Sobota and Connor Johnston — have done well so far to lead the way, Spencer said, adding that there’s no chance of recovering the lost time and experience.

“In years past, you sort of knew what you’d get when the growth would occur,” he said. “Missing time really hurt the development of some of the players and where they would be now. You’re just trying to gain that back with the process. I don’t see anyone in this group that’s just going through the motions.”

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