With strong senior class, Valley volleyball looking to pick up wins on, off court

Monday, September 13, 2021 | 12:23 PM

At Valley, life lessons are handed out as frequently as volleyball lessons by coach April Stone.

Stone, in her eighth season leading the Vikings girls volleyball program, is focused on the team’s improvement and is excited to lead a veteran group of players in their final high school season. But she also knows volleyball is ancillary when it comes to the bigger picture.

“My main concern is to build them as individuals, not just athletes and students, but build them as individuals and community members,” said Stone. “And to show them that, yeah, playing a sport in high school is really cool and being good at it is even cooler, but when that’s all said and done, it’s the individual that really counts.”

That philosophy means grades are of the utmost importance in the Valley program, and that goes beyond simply meeting the eligibility requirements to participate, as Stone offers additional resources to make sure that her players are doing their best.

Outside of the classroom — and the gym — Valley’s community efforts are vast, too. Last season the team “adopted” local police officers. They have students involved in volunteer lifeguarding and picking up litter, and they fill backpacks with school supplies for those in need before the school year begins.

“Reaching them at this age is kind of difficult,” Stone said. “But if I can just put that little bit into them and they realize that becoming a strong individual, independent and working towards their community and being proud of where they come from, is very important.”

On the court, the Vikings are hoping to turn things around after going 2-9 in Section 5-2A last season. But talent and leadership, Stone said, are not missing.

“We have four seniors who have played together for the last six years,” said Stone, adding that the senior group went unbeaten in their middle school years.

“So they’re kind of in tune with one another. They know what to expect, they know when they’re getting on each other’s nerves, they know when to back off, and they know when to push each other. The four girls are incredible leaders for the younger girls coming in.”

The team’s top player will be Emily Lewandowski, one of those seniors who was part of that middle school squad and who once served a “perfect game” in a 25-0 set victory against Riverview in 2018.

She is excited about some refinements in her jump serve, which she was inspired to enhance after watching college volleyball matches.

“I am so excited to be playing on this team for my last year,” said Lewandowski, who hopes to attend either Pitt or Seton Hill to major in either forensic science or business. “I’m looking for everyone to do their best. I love this team. We have such a good bond.”

“She’s probably our most versatile player,” Stone added. “She’s a setter, she’s an outside hitter, she’s a middle hitter and a back hitter. She has an awesome jump serve. Emily has a vision of going further in volleyball and you can tell with how she presents herself that it’s not ending with her senior year.”

Stone has also seen great improvement from sophomore Jessica Staraniec.

“Jessica this year found her feet,” Stone said. “She always would text me that she wanted to be out on the big court and asked, ‘Am I good enough to play?’ Me not putting her out there and not letting her fail on a varsity court as a freshman, I kind of made her want it more.”

Staraniec, who is also a softball player, feels the motivation play by Stone paid off.

“I’m very happy,” Staraniec said about her game. “Last year, I was OK, but I wasn’t impressed with myself. I worked all through the summer and watched videos and thought, ‘Man, I want to be like that.’ All summer, I just practiced and got way better.”

Stone figures Deer Lakes and Derry will be the teams to beat atop Section 5-2A and anticipates those being Valley’s toughest matchups. She also thinks some of the missteps of 2020 have been eliminated over the summer.

“They needed to grow in their minds,” She said. “Once they got down a couple of points, they lost it. It wasn’t their physical ability. It wasn’t their athletic skills. It was building them up and making them confident in what they are doing out on the court.”

Ultimately, with Stone’s equal focus on her players’ habits on and off of the court, she hopes for an all-around successful year for her team, which has shown improved dedication to one another and the sport.

“As a coach, I’m looking forward to this season,” she said. “I can’t get these girls out of the gym. But hey, it’s better than them being anywhere else, as long as their school work is done.”


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