St. Joseph volleyball keeps improving, sets sights on WPIAL playoff spot

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Monday, September 25, 2023 | 9:39 PM


In 2020, the St. Joseph girls volleyball team went 0-12 in section play. It was 0-14 the year before and in 2018.

The Spartans won just three section matches in 2021, but things were looking up.

Last year, they recorded four victories in section play, and a late-season 3-1 loss to Trinity Christian thwarted St. Joseph’s WPIAL playoff hopes.

The Spartans have continued to follow an upward trajectory. Already with four section wins, they are hoping to make their mark in the second half of the section slate and earn a long-awaited postseason berth.

“We are really working well as a team right now, and we have a lot of girls playing their roles very well,” said 6-foot senior middle hitter and team co-captain Julie Spinelli. “If there is a mistake in a match, we put that behind us quickly and come back as a team and work on winning that next point. Teamwork and communication in matches are the biggest things if we’re going to make the playoffs.”

Change came to the program shortly before the season as Dennis Jones, who had been dealing with health issues since a stay in the hospital in January, stepped away from the coaching position after nine seasons.

Enter Ann McCarthy, who came to the job familiar with the St. Joseph players. Her daughter, Veronica, is a junior outside hitter and one of four returning starters along with Spinelli, senior 6-3 middle hitter Anna Kreinbrook and sophomore setter Kate Giannetta.

“I’ve coached middle school volleyball before, so when they were looking for a coach, the opportunity was exciting,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know if I was totally prepared for it, but it’s been a fun process working with this team.”

Spinelli, a Frostburg State basketball verbal commit, and Giannetta earned Section 4 all-star honors a year ago.

Giannetta and senior Jamie Noonan, a team co-captain with Spinelli, provide security at setter.

Senior Emma Swierczewski, who missed last year with an injury, is back and = providing height and power at outside hitter, McCarthy said.

St. Joseph began the week 7-2 overall and 4-1 in Section 1 play. The only loss in section was a 3-0 setback to Greensburg Central Catholic on Sept. 14.

“We’ve really found the positives in every match, win or lose,” Giannetta said. “We’re not satisfied with where we are. We’re committed to working towards the standards and goals we’ve set for ourselves.”

The Spartans on Tuesday host Serra Catholic, the new No. 1 team in the latest Western Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association Class A rankings.

“Serra is just a well-coached, talented team,” McCarthy said. “They have some players who play club year round. We’re going to have our hands full, but the girls are excited for the opportunity to face them.”

The Eagles players enter the match after several emotional days following the death of 15-year-old sophomore Samantha Kalkbrenner in a car accident last Wednesday. Athletic events were suspended through the weekend.

St. Joseph students, McCarthy said, will wear Serra Catholic colors, and the team plans to present gifts to the Eagles team in honor and memory of Kalkbrenner.

“We also have some things for the family, especially,” McCarthy said. “One of the things about sports is that it translates to life in so many ways. It is the humanity of it all. We just want to show them how much we are thinking about them and praying for them.”

St. Joseph hoped for a better outcome Friday in a nonsection match at Eden Christian, No. 4 in the Class A rankings.

The teams went to extra points in the first set before Eden pulled out a 26-24 win. From there, Eden took the second set 25-10 and the third 25-17 to complete the sweep.

“I think it might have gone differently if we had come away with that first set,” McCarthy said. “It was so close and competitive. That is such a tough gym to go to and win. Our servers were struggling a little bit because they didn’t have a lot of room to jump serve. It was loud and intense, too. We tried, but we just couldn’t recover after that first set.”

McCarthy said the match with Eden came at the end of the long week. St. Joseph played three matches for the second week in a row.

“We came up against a few teams that we had historically lost to like Trinity Christian and Leechburg,” McCarthy said. “We had dealt with so much emotion built up.”

It was good emotion, McCarthy said.

As part of their 4-1 section start, the Spartans defeated Leechburg, 3-0, on Sept. 12, and then outlasted Trinity Christian, 3-2, on Sept. 19.

St. Joseph won the first two sets against Trinity Christian, 25-21 and 25-16. But Trinity didn’t go quietly and won the third and fourth sets by the same 25-20 score.

The Spartans, behind Giannetta (19 service points), Spinelli (11 kills), and freshman Jillian Bloch (18 service points), claimed the fifth and deciding set, 15-8.

“I just think we knew we were the better team and had to show it,” Spinelli said. “It’s never easy to win all three sets in a row. (Trinity Christian) is a good team, and we knew it was going to be a tough match. But we kept playing hard and focused on that last set.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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