Wrapping up the Thomas Jefferson, Baldwin boys volleyball seasons

By:
Sunday, June 23, 2024 | 9:50 AM


The Thomas Jefferson boys volleyball team had high expectations and an elevated enthusiasm around the program for the 2024 season.

Then, one of the Jaguars’ key starters, 6-foot-7 senior outside hitter William “Will” Stewart, suffered a wrist injury that sent the team scurrying to a lineup change on the eve of section play.

“We had all the pieces in place to make a run for a section and WPIAL championship,” TJ coach Frank Staffen said. “Most years, it seemed like we were missing one or two players, but this year was different. We had a lot of club players and a lot of players with experience.”

TJ participated in early-season tournaments at Fox Chapel and Norwin.

“Things started off really well for us in the two tournaments,” Staffen said. “We were beating or splitting games with some very good teams in 3A. During the Norwin tournament, our big guy, William Stewart, hurt his wrist. On Monday, the day before our first section game against rival Seton LaSalle, Will walks in my classroom telling me he broke his wrist and will be out for the regular season.

“My heart sank, and I had to come up with a new lineup. We only had one practice with the new lineup with players in different positions.”

Seton LaSalle defeated the Jaguars in five games, but it was a quick learning experience for TJ.

“After that, the team kept winning and getting better,” Staffen said. “The second time we played Seton, we won in three games.”

The Section 3-2A championship was on the line in TJ’s final regular-season game at South Fayette.

“If we won, it would have been a three-way tie for first between Seton LaSalle, South Fayette and TJ,” Staffen said. “We ended up losing in five games again to end up in third place.”

Six TJ players were named all-section. First-team selections consisted of juniors Jaiden Wadlow, a 5-foot-6 libero, and Braeden Artman, a 6-3 middle hitter and senior Riley Burdett, a 6-foot outside hitter.

“Honestly, I think we did great this season,” Burdett said. “It was new heights for us as a team and for the school as a program. No boys volleyball team at TJ had made it to the WPIAL semis. Now, I will say that that doesn’t show the potential this team had. We just underperformed when we needed to play the most.

“I had high hopes having everyone on our starting roster playing club year-round. We were bound to be a strong team.”

Artman was looking at a WPIAL playoff run and beyond.

“I thought the team this year did incredible,” he said. “We went farther than any team Mr. Staffen has coached. I only wish we got a chance at states, too.

“We went into the season believing we could go all the way.”

Second-team all-section selections on the team were freshman Brayden Concannon, a 6-5 setter/right-side hitter, and junior Aiden Dushack, a 6-1 middle hitter. Sujan Pradhan, a 5-7 junior setter, was voted to the third team.

“I think we performed really well for the situation we were in with Will being out all season,” Wadlow said. “I think we should’ve gone farther than we did, but I’m still happy with the results.

“We expected to compete for the WPIAL championship, but when Will got hurt the team had to put in even extra work.”

Cole MacNeil, a 6-foot junior outside/right-side hitter, and Troy Brown, a 5-10 junior defensive specialist, also were part of the regular rotation for the Jaguars, who received the No. 10 seed for the WPIAL playoffs and met No. 6 Latrobe in the first round.

“The good news is that William Stewart came back to the lineup for playoffs,” Staffen said. “Though William was back, my goal was to try to protect him and his wrist. William played in the second line, protecting his wrist from hard hitters.”

TJ defeated the Wildcats, 3-1, in the first round and No. 2 North Catholic by the same score in the quarterfinals. The Jaguars lost a 3-2 decision to Armstrong in the semifinal round at Gateway.

It was a close call against Armstrong, which won the fifth game by a 15-13 score.

History repeated itself in the consolation round as TJ fell to Peters Township, 3-2, which won the fifth game by the same 15-13 score.

“We played very hard against Armstrong,” Staffen said. “In the consolation round at Peters Township, we found ourselves again in a dog fight.”

The Jaguars finished fourth in WPIAL Class 2A — the best showing in boys volleyball in school history.

“Even though we fell short in a couple of areas, the players never quit,” said Staffen, who was assisted by Debbie McSwiggen.

Four TJ players lauded as all-WPIAL selections. Stewart was named to the first team; Burdett, Artman and Wadlow were second-team honorees.

“I was hopeful the team would be successful and make it farther than we had in the prior years that I played,” Stewart said. “I think the guys performed really well. I was impressed with how much they came together and pushed themselves whenever I got hurt. I’m proud of them.”

Stewart and Burdett were the only upperclassmen on the 2024 squad, giving the Jaguars a solid foundation to build upon for 2025.

Burdett plans to attend Bethany, where he will major in computer science. Stewart is entering the workforce.

“They will be hard to replace,” Staffen said. “We have a strong core returning with a lot of them playing club volleyball.”

Wadlow believes the Jaguars will be driven to make another extended postseason chase in 2025.

“I think we will be a very competitive team,” he said. “We keep a majority of our starters and will have to work very hard to live up to this season.”

Artman said next year could be something special.

“If we work hard and go into the season with a fire under us, I think we can go farther than anyone thinks,” he said. “It all depends on how badly the team wants to win.”

TJ has relied in recent years on players competing at the club level in the offseason.

“Even though we don’t have a middle school program, there have been a lot of middle school parents sending their kids to play club volleyball,” Staffen said. “We have been hosting middle school clinics, which has been generating a lot of interest in our sport.

“We currently have several students in the middle school playing club volleyball and will be coming to the high school next year.”

Baldwin

Ironically, it was a loss to Seneca Valley that triggered the Baldwin boys volleyball team to a successful season.

Baldwin lost a close 3-2 decision April 22 to the Raiders, who were ranked third in Class 3A in the final WPIAL regular-season poll.

“We did start out very slowly this year,” Baldwin coach Milan Yekich said. “We knew we were going to be a good team, and we did see progress.

“We lost to Seneca Valley in five sets. After the Seneca match, I think we were 5-2 record-wise. At the end of the season, that’s when we racked up our confidence.”

Baldwin finished with a 10-8 regular-season record and was 6-4 as the runner-up in Section 1. Canon-McMillan (10-0), Baldwin, Moon (5-5) and Upper St. Clair (5-5) qualified for the playoffs.

The Highlanders defeated Thomas Jefferson, Keystone Oaks, Central Catholic and Mt. Lebanon in nonsection matches and lost to South Fayette, Norwin, North Hills and Seneca Valley.

Baldwin and Hempfield clashed in the WPIAL first round May 14 as the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds.

Hempfield was 9-6, which included a 5-5 mark and a tie for third place in Section 3. Norwin (10-0), Penn-Trafford (8-2), Hempfield and Central Catholic (5-5) were the playoff qualifiers.

Baldwin lost a tough 3-2 decision at home to the Spartans, who steadfastly rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the match.

The teams appeared to be evenly matched, as the Highlanders looked to be in control early and won the first two sets 25-19, 27-25. Hempfield rallied to take the next two sets, however, by scores of 25-19, 25-23.

Baldwin grabbed a 5-3 lead in the fifth set, but the Spartans forced a 5-5 tie. There were five ties in the set, the last at 7-7.

Baldwin’s volleyball squad was dominated by upperclassmen with six seniors on the team’s roster.

“We had one four-year varsity starter and three three-year starters,” Yekich said.

The smallest player on the court usually displayed a big presence for the Highlanders. Bibeak Bhujel, at 5-3, was a four-year starter at the libero position.

“We had a pretty good season,” he said, “almost the best season in the four years I’ve played, and I’m proud all the seniors for the hard work they put in — on and off the court.

“And I’m most proud of all the underclassmen that are putting in work in the offseason because that’s going to (lead to) lots of growth for the team in the future.”

Bhujel had 231 digs and just one ball-handling error this spring.

“Bibeak’s performance progressed with each season,” Yekich said. “He began his freshman year with not much experience but gained the knowledge and a better understanding of the game each year. Over the past two seasons, Bibeak has increasingly been better at recognizing a hitter’s tendencies, as well as seeing our block and adjusting to be able to keep the ball in play.

“This past season has been his best hands down. I would say he was the best libero in our section, making it tough for other teams to put the ball away when he was at the top of his game that night. He will be hard to replace next season. He was the core and foundation of our defense, and his four years of experience will be hard to duplicate.”

Bhujel plans to enlist in the Navy to study nuclear engineering.

“I do plan on playing for the Navy men’s volleyball team in the future, though,” he said.

Bhujel said he enjoyed the family atmosphere within the Baldwin volleyball program.

“My favorite memories would probably be practices, meals after games and celebrating the wins and losses as a family,” he said. “I am super thankful for the coaches. They believed in us and helped us out so much, and it was great being coached by them regardless of how we performed.”

Logan Pack, a fiery, hard-hitting 6-4 right-side hitter, Rohan Bhattarai, a 5-10 setter, and Anay Rai, a 5-8 outside hitter, were third-year senior starters.

The left-handed hitting Pack proved to be a difference-maker in games throughout the season. He was lauded April 29 as a 3A Player of the Week by the Western Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association.

“Logan was one of the most dominant players on the court,” Yekich said. “During the offseason, Logan put a lot of work on and off the court to become a better player. He was an all-around threat from the front row and when serving and playing defense.”

Pack, who plans to continue his volleyball career at Chatham, accounted for 277 kills and 31 blocks this season and developed into an authoritative server.

“His jump serves were night and day from last season,” Yekich said. “When at peak performance, Logan was able to get a half-dozen aces or so during a match. This helped us at times gain momentum to close out a set or match.

“Logan’s leadership also became more prevalent this season. He helped keep guys in line and accountable. His presence will be hard to replace and duplicate next season.”

Others in the starting rotation included junior middle hitter Anjal Gurung, sophomore outside hitters Brayden Gremba and Alex Kelly and sophomore middle hitter Austin Kruszewski.

Bhattarai racked up 603 assists with 23 ball-handling errors; Gurung accounted for 61 kills and 31 blocks. Gremba and Kelly had 185 kills and 19 blocks and 147 kills and 14 blocks, respectively; Kruszewski chipped in with 29 kills and 41 blocks.

Bhujel and Pack were named first-team all-section, and Bhattarai and Gremba were voted to the second team. Gurung and Kelly were third-team selections.

Baldwin’s top reserves included seniors Ryan Shaneman (middle hitter) and Durwin Fuller (right-side hitter), junior Dip Thapa (defensive specialist), junior Blaine Rigby (outside hitter) and sophomore Dylan Leonhardt (outside hitter).

“If we can work on more aggressive serves, and keep them in, work on serve receive and groom our JV setter, Ayush Rai, to take over the varsity team, I feel we will be slightly stronger (in 2025) than this past season,” Yekich said. “We had a lot of young talent on the court this season, and we finished the season in pretty good shape.”

Rai is a leading freshman prospect at Baldwin.

“Our goal is to work with him during the offseason to improve his skills even more,” Yekich said. “He was one of the first athletes that signed up for the middle school program a few years ago once it was started. He has improved greatly in such a short period of time.”

The Highlanders will have seven players back from this year’s team along with Rai.

“With our outside hitter and middles returning, I feel we are in a good place,” Yekich said. “We have a lot of work to do in the offseason, but I know the guys are still hungry for success after getting a taste of it this season.

“I hope we can take what we learned from the loss in the playoffs and build upon it, and that will make for a team that is not finished yet.”

Tags: ,

More High School Sports

Knoch transfer Colt Sprankle earns postseason eligibility after PIAA board overturns WPIAL
PIAA board favors 6 classes for girls volleyball, rejects plan to expand track to 3
Apollo-Ridge girls basketball making strides as it transitions to new coach Raevaan Mottley
PIAA endorses potential changes to competitive-balance rule, could allow appeals on health and safety grounds
2024 Trib HSSN Preseason Football All-Star Team: Imani Christian’s Dayshaun Burnett