North Hills volleyball wants to swing away in tough section

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Saturday, September 24, 2022 | 11:01 AM


Matt White knew he was in for a challenge when he agreed to lead the North Hills girls volleyball program this season.

White had a newborn baby at home, had spent the last 11 years coaching with a successful program in Shaler and was taking over a program that has failed to reach the postseason in decades.

But, even before the job opened, he knew of plenty of reasons to be optimistic about volleyball at North Hills and didn’t want to get rid of the team’s complete preexisting identity.

“Coaching against them for years, I’d always pull my team aside in a timeout like, ‘Man, North Hills is out-defending us. They’re working their butts off. They are playing great. We’ve got to emulate that,’” he said. “Now that I’m on the North Hills side, I want to make sure the girls don’t lose that.”

That said, White had some clear objectives to allow the Indians a better shot at competing in one the WPIAL’s most consistently strong sections, Section 1-4A.

“I didn’t want to tear everything apart,” he said. “They’ve had success. Unfortunately, you’re in a very difficult section where, at one point this season, every team in our section was in the top 10 (rankings).

“It’s always tough when a new coach comes in, changes philosophy, changes wording. They’ve been very astute in their learning and trying to pick up things quickly.”

White also introduced some objectives for on and off the court, which he learned while serving as an assistant under Paul Stadelman, who recently stepped down as the Shaler girls coach and still coaches the boys team.

“Coach Stadelman has done a phenomenal job with the boys and girls programs over there, and I was blessed enough to coach with him,” White said. “But he’s done a great job not just focusing on the sport, but helping the players recognize that it’s about the community. … I wanted to make sure I brought a lot of that element to the team.

“And also a strong commitment to workout ethic and understanding the importance of weightlifting. We tried to bring that in this summer.”

Improved conditioning, White hopes, will benefit the team’s speed over time.

“We’re small compared to the rest of our section,” he said. “We don’t have the same average height as most of the teams out there, so you have to play a fast, aggressive, gritty game.”

North Hills has just two seniors on the roster.

“We have a decent amount of juniors, but it’s their first stint in varsity,” White said. “We’re young compared to the rest of the WPIAL, the rest of our section. But the girls have done a great job.”

White has been pleased with the efforts of a number of players, particularly junior setter Jenna Dominek.

“It’s her second year setting varsity,” White said. “Anytime you’re a setter, you have that quarterback mentality. Your sport IQ has to be high. You control a lot of the game. Jenna’s done a great job taking feedback.”

He’s also gotten strong performances from junior libero Giana Cutenese, a three-year varsity player.

“If you think about the greatest NBA defenders, they don’t just sit back there and wait,” White said. “They have an aggressiveness with their defense. Giana has that.”

Another junior, Angie Bekelja-Wagner, is one of the “hardest hitting players in the section,” according to White.

And the future of North Hills’ offensive attack appears bright, as freshman Ashlyn Fazio has emerged as the team’s premier outside hitter.

“Anytime you step onto a varsity court as a freshman, there’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders,” White said of Fazio, the daughter of two former volleyball players. “She’s handled herself very well. She’s a dynamite player, for sure.”

Despite the young talent, the odds are against the Indians, who have not won more than three section games since 2015 and have not truly contended for playoff positioning during any current player’s lifetime.

But White thinks that his team is growing into one that can, in time, compete and defeat the best. In the short term, he hopes the new changes give them, well, a puncher’s chance.

“We have to be willing to be in a big fight, in that brawl mentality,” he said. “We have to be like Rocky Balboa. It’s not how hard you hit the ground. It’s about how you get back up and get back into the fight.”

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