Hampton volleyball aims to continue winning ways despite change

Thursday, August 29, 2019 | 6:00 PM

Two significant changes affect the Hampton girls volleyball team this year. Making the necessary adjustments to both will help ensure continued success for the program.

New coach Mike Hansen steps in to lead a team that has been largely successful over the past three seasons. It made playoffs each of those years, reaching the WPIAL title match in 2016.

But with the upperclassmen entrenched in former coach Matt Robertson’s program, he is going to need their trust.

“I’ve got my own program,” he said. “Anytime you replace a coach, it’s tough for the upperclassmen. I’ve got my own way of doing things. So far, the kids have embraced it totally 100%. They’ve bought in, and I couldn’t be more thankful of that.”

Senior captain Claire Braun thinks the team has embraced the change and is expecting great things. The team has practiced more and bonded off the court, including hiking and kayaking at North Park and yoga.

“We’re getting adjusted to how things have changed,” she said. “I think we’re ready for it.”

The other major change is the graduation of Anastasia Russ, who burst on the scene in 2016 and quickly established herself as one of the premier volleyball players in the country. But with Russ a freshman at Pitt, the program will get a true test of life without a generational talent.

“Anastasia is a player that comes around once every 30 to 40 years,” Hansen said. “Anytime you lose a D-I athlete, you have big shoes to fill. I think everyone on the team recognizes that they have to do whatever it takes to fill the loss.”

Added Braun: “We’re all combining our aspects of the game to replace her as a team and not just one person.”

The team returns four starters with experience in meaningful games. Chief among those are right-side hitter Katie Januck and middle hitter Claire Braun.

“I’m totally looking forward to them playing this year,” Hansen said. “They’re tremendous players and both captains. Together those two are going to be the cornerstone of my team.”

Returning senior Maggie Laffin will lead the defense at libero, and while defensive specialist Gillian Mulcahy is dealing with an injury, she is expected back soon. Experienced senior Grace Rydzak was named the third captain of the group.

Junior Addie Syglowski will play multiple positions. She has a great serve and court awareness, Hansen said. Other key players will include outside hitter Kate Hovanec, junior setter Bridget Wojcik, as well as defensive specialists Julia Resch, Jayden Davis, Kyra Ribar and Elaina Antosz.

The depth should keep Hampton competitive in what has been one of the toughest sections in the WPIAL over the past few years.

Knoch repeated as WPIAL champion last year, and Central Valley, which has qualified for the state playoffs the past two seasons, continually has been a thorn in Hampton’s side. But that’s not deterring Hansen from setting lofty goals.

“I set a goal for this team to win the section,” he said. “I know that’s going to be a real challenge. Knoch is coming back from WPIAL champions. Basically, the same team. They have a good coach that’s been there a long time. But I think we have the talent to compete with them. If we don’t, I’m putting that on me.”

Central Valley is dealing with more turnover than Knoch but should remain a difficult matchup. And Mars, which finished right behind Hampton in last year’s standings, returns most of its starting talent.

“This year I’m trying to push that aside,” said Braun of any fixation on the competition. “There’s been so many changes within our program, and I know we’ve all improved a lot. I’ve been working hard to make sure I don’t get inside my head for those games especially. Because they are our biggest competition, I think. But we’re ready to take those things on and see where they go. We’re ready to finally have our moment.”

Added Hansen: “We had a great summer of open gyms and first two weeks of practice. It was tough, hard work. I pushed the girls, but I think it made us bond as a team and we’re better for it.”


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