Hempfield boys volleyball finding success early on relying on its ‘2 varsity teams’

Monday, April 17, 2023 | 10:46 AM

Boys volleyball practices at Hempfield this season have been like nothing Owen Kelley has seen in his four-year association with the Spartans program.

“We have 13 guys that see varsity time, which is a full second team,” Kelley said. “In the past, the varsity would practice against the (junior varsity) and the competition just wasn’t there.”

A 5-foot-11 senior outside hitter with a 40-inch vertical leap, Kelley is committed to play next season at Division III Geneva. He is the unquestioned leader of a Hempfield team that coach John Howell says has “one super standout (Kelley) and 12 other varsity players that are all fairly equal.

“Which,” Howell insisted, “isn’t a bad thing.”

Hempfield lost five starters from last season.

Other returning starters reuniting with Kelley this year are junior middle hitters Josh Reilly and Dominic Palmiero.

Among their supporting cast are a handful of players with no varsity experience, including setters Stephen Nickischer, a junior, and Gino Bompiani, a sophomore.

“Those guys never saw the court before,” Howell said.

He conceded that particularly for those with prior varsity time, this season has been a learning game.

“They’re not used to the style, with all the subbing,” he said. “When you have six or seven kids consistently on the court, they get used to each other. It took a while to learn who’s beside you.”

Relying on that roster depth, the WPIAL Class 3A seventh-ranked Spartans (6-2, 3-1 Section 3) had won six consecutive matches before a 3-1 loss to No. 2 Penn-Trafford on Thursday night. They were scheduled to play a pair of matches this week against Central Catholic on Tuesday and at No. 9 Seneca Valley on Friday.

Hempfield’s only prior loss had been to District 10 power McDowell, ranked No. 8 in PIAA Class 3A.

While the Spartans’ success is nice, it wasn’t without some anxious moments. Howell pleaded with his young players to trust the process. He took them to Erie for the McDowell test. The team stayed over and participated the next day at the Meadville Tournament, whose field included WPIAL No. 1 Shaler as well as several other state-ranked teams.

“The kids got an opportunity to bond during that trip,” Howell said. “We saw some teams that taught us how to fight right away, and it’s paying off.”

Before last week’s matches, the Spartans prevailed three times against quality opponents, beating No. 8 Upper St. Clair, 3-0, No. 4 Norwin, 3-2, and Class 2A No. 1 Latrobe, 3-2, in a match Kelley sat out because of a knee injury.

“This is an interesting team,” Howell said. “For us, it’s been very different. We’ve never used a lot of substitutes, where this year, we’re playing 10 guys in a rotation instead of using six or seven guys. We’ve never really had this kind of talent.”

Asked if he’d ever coached a team this way in his 28 seasons at Hempfield, Howell smiled and said, “Once. That’s just the makeup of this team.

“It’s proved its point, and the players even said it after beating Norwin. They said, ‘We feel great. We’re not sucking wind.’ The more winning, the more they’re accepting it.”

Kelley, too, has been excited for the potential success Hempfield can achieve this season, likening it to his sophomore year, when the Spartans were one match from qualifying for the PIAA playoffs.

He harkened back to the start of this year, when players became frustrated with Howell’s constant substituting. But he said he could imagine the style working well.

“I saw the potential we had with the bench,” Kelley said. “Having two varsity teams is now helping us to develop. This is something special, for sure, and I’ve been trying to keep everyone’s heads up. We need to stay positive. With new people, it can get frustrating.”

But, Howell, too, was confident the season could be special, even with a roster dominated by underclassmen. He’s gotten some added help on staff with the addition of Hempfield girls coach Ashten Flynn as an assistant.

“She wanted to learn more, and she likes the kids,” Howell said. “It’s been really fun to have Ashten here to help out.”

Flynn joined a boys coaching staff that also includes assistants Kathy Kuhns and Brett Binduga.

As each match passes, the players haven’t been the only ones adjusting. The coaches also needed some extra time to find their way. Howell felt it was just a matter of time before it caught on.

“We thought, as coaches, we could be as good or maybe better than we were last year,” he said. “Teams are not used to seeing this style from us. It’s been a process. The first few weeks were trying, but I’ve continued to tell the guys to ‘keep fighting, be patient and have confidence.’ ”


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