North Hills girls volleyball in midst of breakthrough season

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Saturday, September 23, 2023 | 11:01 AM


A year after Matt White took over a struggling North Hills girls volleyball program, his imprint has already been made.

The Indians, who haven’t won a WPIAL postseason match in decades, are off to a strong start in 2023 thanks to a foundation set last year.

North Hills sat at 6-1 overall, with a 1-1 mark in the ultra-competitive Section 1-4A, through Sept. 18. The impressive open to the season comes off a year in which the Indians went just 6-13 overall and 1-7 in section play.

“It’s been a really good start,” said White. “We’ve had good compete. The WPIAL lost a really strong class with last year’s seniors, all around. All teams lost a lot of starters, so there was an opportunity for any team to step up and compete, and our girls have done a really good job so far of doing that.”

White’s team was one of the few that didn’t lose a lot, with only two seniors on last year’s roster.

“We had a lot of girls bring their expertise in, and we had a lot of girls commit to play out of season on travel teams,” he said. “They went out this winter and put in the time and effort.”

The Indians reached the WPIAL postseason last year, despite the poor section record. They were bounced in straight sets by Canon-McMillan in the opening round, but learned lessons that have carried over into 2023.

“Strong defense really goes a long way,” White said. “We found out last year that we needed to supplement it with a consistent offense. We’ve had a strong defense and had some solid back row play. But we’ve worked hard this year at trying to be game managers. It’s not always about the big swing. It’s about making the important, right play.

“I have a phenomenal group of smart girls who have applied their smarts into their volleyball game. We’re playing high IQ volleyball. We may not be as tall as other teams, but we’re at least putting it where it’s more difficult on them, and forcing the game on their court.”

North Hills has one player over 5-foot-10. But that has not seemed to matter much, particularly in one of the program’s more meaningful wins in some time.

“A big win for these girls was coming in and beating Shaler,” said White of the 3-1 victory over their rivals on Sept. 7. “Shaler’s two years removed from their second-place finish in the WPIAL. These girls were in the same section as Shaler for many years.

“That win was a really big one. It showed that growth to them. I asked them when the last time was that they beat Shaler, and even the seniors couldn’t remember hearing about a time that it happened.”

White, for many years, was on the other side of those results as a coach at Shaler. He’s now seeing the North Hills program take the shape of those Titans teams which have been solid over the years.

“There’s been a little more consistency in some parts of our game,” he said. “I’ve been impressed with our serving. They’ve been attacking teams with their serving. I’ve been really impressed with their growth defensively as we’re trying different systems. They’re continuing to execute.”

Individually, junior middle hitter Addyson Wrigley has gotten off to a hot start.

“She’s a returning starter for us,” White said. “Last year, as a sophomore playing varsity, she was really learning the game. Now she has the highest hitting percentage on our team, and in a position that’s hard to find that connect.”

Senior defensive specialist Giana Cutenese, a four-year starter, has anchored the team on the reception end.

“I’ve been very impressed with her,” White added. “She’s the quarterback of the defense. She sets the tone in the back row with the way she competes and doesn’t give up.”

Sophomore Ashlyn Fazio, who started as a freshman last season, packs a punch as an outside hitter despite only standing at 5-5. She’s also been strong on the service line.

North Hills’ lone loss was a sweep at the hands of perennial power North Allegheny in the Indians’ section opener. But they bounced back just four days later, earning a win over Butler.

“We’re taking the right steps,” White said. “We had a good first game against North Allegheny… we put all of our fight into it, and there was a little regrouping after that.

“When you play a team that’s consistently strong, you play strong and you play strong, and as soon as you see a little error or off play by that team, you jump on it and capitalize on that play, and that’s how you stay in those games and win those.”

“As we get a chance to play (North Allegheny) again, and Seneca Valley and Pine-Richland – other strong returning teams – we have to capitalize on their mistakes and minimize ours.”

More than anything, White, his players and staff have worked to make North Hills better from top to bottom, and at every level. The middle school and JV teams have winning records early on.

And now, in a more open field — albeit one still with quality teams at the top — the varsity Indians may be closer to competing than the program has been in any current player’s lifetime.

“When I was coaching against these girls, it was always, ‘Oh, North Hills is that easy win,’” White says. “Now, we’re competing with those top teams. I’m just very impressed with the whole program.”

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