Hempfield boys volleyball trying to work out kinks, make push for WPIAL playoff berth

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Monday, April 29, 2024 | 11:47 AM


At the midpoint of the boys volleyball season, Hempfield still was trying to hold serve. It seemed the harder the Spartans tried, the more inconsistent they became.

It’s been perhaps the one aspect delaying Hempfield’s progress the most.

“You don’t want to ask,” Hempfield coach John Howell said, responding to the very question of how much time the Spartans spend practicing the art of serving. “The amount of time we put in on it is phenomenal. I don’t know if the pressure gets to them.”

In an area where players with the sharpest techniques from the service line can offer instant offense, Hempfield had been coming up short.

“We’re not serving aggressive enough, and we serve too many out and take ourselves out of rallies,” Howell said. “When you play at this level, you’ve got to be able to serve tough, and you’ve got to be able to serve consistent. That’s the biggest problem we have.”

After a recent 3-1 home loss to Seneca Valley, Howell stood near the net and chatted with Raiders coach Brett Poirier, whose team rallied from a 1-0 deficit.

“He said, ‘Dude, if you would’ve served, we would’ve come out here with a loss tonight,’ ” Howell said. “I just shrugged, because I knew he was probably right.

“We’ll miss two or three serves in a row, and it just changes the whole momentum, and then the other team gains confidence from it.”

Compounding matters is a hole left by the graduation of WPIAL Section 3-3A first-team all-star Owen Kelley, the team’s unquestioned leader a year ago.

While Howell was quick to praise a handful of experienced returning players on a veteran roster, he had been tinkering with a lineup that was thirsting for better teamwork.

“We’ve changed the lineup to feel it out,” Howell said. “The chemistry hasn’t been right.”

Opposite Dom Palmiero and middle hitter Josh Reilly, a pair of seniors, returned after last season joining Kelley with Section 3-3A first-team all-star status.

Libero Nate Biondi and outside hitter Drew Gordon, both juniors, are back after last season being voted to the second team, as is senior defensive specialist Kolton Butina, a third-team selection a year ago.

Despite the experience, Howell has been confounded at times by his team’s inconsistent play.

“We’re just up and down,” he said. “We can’t get all six players on all the cylinders on the same day for a whole match. They’ll have a great match for one set but not for an entire match. Our defense is our strength right now.”

Kelley’s absence is glaring, Howell said, pointing to Gordon as the most likely candidate to step into a lead role.

“Drew Gordon has been our most consistent hitter,” Howell said. “Night-in and night-out, he just plays hard. He has the most kills. He is our terminator right now, without question. He’s playing well, and he’s only a junior.”

Incidentally, Kelley made quite an impact in his first college season at Division III Geneva, earning Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Newcomer of the Year with a spot on the all-conference third team.

An outside hitter, he led Geneva with 325 kills, third most in a season in program history, and his 36 aces ranked fifth for a single year.

With nearly a half-season remaining, Hempfield (4-4, 2-3 Section 3-3A entering last week), was hopeful of gaining some traction as the schedule drew closer to the postseason.

“We’ve just got to keep working hard on two things,” Howell said. “Serving is a big one — a big one — and just a little more consistent offense. Our passing gets a little funny, and it narrows down on what we can run.

“A lot of years, we come out strong and kind of plateau early. Maybe this team can be a little different: start a little slower than we’re used to and continue to build on. If we can get a little more consistency out of some of the guys, it could go a long way in our success.”

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