Hempfield boys volleyball rolling into 2nd half of regular season

Tuesday, May 3, 2022 | 1:06 PM

With six players getting a late start, including three senior mainstays, the Hempfield boys volleyball team stumbled out of the gate this season and lost to Norwin in its opener.

Since then, the Spartans gradually began pulling together, winning their next five matches heading into the second half of the season.

“We figured that would be the case when our basketball team qualified for the playoffs,” said veteran Hempfield volleyball coach John Howell, who is in his 26th season as head of the program.

Hempfield made an early exit in February from the WPIAL Class 6A basketball playoffs after a first-round loss to Mt. Lebanon, affording the team’s volleyball players an instant opportunity to turn their full attention to volleyball season.

Without much time to mesh with their teammates, seniors Chaz Ewer, Sean Gordon and Domenic Hipps, along with sophomores Kolton Butina and Aaron Woodley and freshman Drew Gordon, were slow to catch on.

Yet, much like riding a bicycle, remembering the techniques of smacking a smaller white ball around the volleyball court quickly came natural to them.

The 6-foot-5 Gordon, an opposite-side hitter, along with the 6-3 tandem of middle hitter Ewer and outside hitter Lane Harry, 6-0 libero Nolan Stamford, 5-10 setter Hipps and 6-0 outside hitter Owen Kelley, account for Hempfield’s six returning starters from a team last season that lost its final two matches in the WPIAL Class 3A playoffs.

The Spartans fell to eventual WPIAL champion North Allegheny, 3-0, in the semifinals before ending the year with a 3-1 loss to Penn-Trafford in the consolation match.

“We came up one game short (of the state playoffs),” Howell said.

“This is one of the more balanced teams I’ve had. In the past, we relied on one or two players to carry us, players who were head and shoulders above everyone. But this team? Only a few are pure volleyball players. Most of the guys are multiple-sports guys, so we’re very consistent and evenly balanced.”

Howell has been impressed with his current group’s undivided attention since that opening 3-2 home loss to Norwin on March 29.

“We’re just trying to build the chemistry as time goes on,” he said. “Our strength as we keep growing is our offensive power.”

Sophomore 6-3 middle hitter Josh Reilly also continued to impress Howell in a reserve role, offering some depth for now and hope for future teams.

This season, it’s Ewer, a four-year starter, who is committed to NAIA Life University (Ga.), and Gordon, a three-year starter, who’ve stood tall — literally.

“Those guys give us a great deal of size, but it’s not just that,” Howell said. “Take a guy like Owen Kelley. He’s only 6-foot, but he brings a lot of power, as well. He’s got a 40-inch vertical leap.”

Hempfield climbed to No. 5 in the WPIAL Coaches Association Class 3A poll heading into the second half of the schedule this week, beginning Wednesday with a rematch at No. 3 Norwin (6-0).

The Spartans were scheduled to return home Tuesday to face Central Catholic before going to Penn Hills on Thursday.

“We expected to maybe start a little slower than normal,” said Howell, whose teams at Hempfield have won four section championships and qualified six times for the PIAA tournament.

As the season passes the midpoint, Howell senses perhaps a special ending.

“This group works hard and is very smart,” he said. “They understand what needs to get done. It’s just a matter of getting things done.”


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