The high school volleyball season has reached its halfway point, and Mars girls coach Dan Mountain has the Planets within striking distance of defending champion Hopewell.
Mars lost to Hopewell, 25-18, 25-23, in the championship match of the Midwestern Athletic Conference Big Schools Tournament Saturday at South Side Beaver High School.
"We gave Hopewell a good battle in the championship match, especially in the second set," Mountain said. "We may have lost, but it showed the girls just how close they are to the defending WPIAL champions. And we still have a month to get ready for the WPIAL playoffs. We just have to keep working hard."
Mars moved up to No. 2 in the WPIAL Class AA rankings with its 3-1 upset of Freeport, the WPIAL runner-up last year, in a Section 4-AA match Sept. 18 at Freeport.
"When I saw the WPIAL placed us and Knoch in the same section with Freeport [in the recent WPIAL realignment], I figured it would be a battle between the three of us for the section title," Mountain said.
After defeating Knoch, 3-0, Tuesday, Mars improved its section record to 6-0. Freeport is second at 5-1, followed by Knoch at 4-2.
"We are off to a good start, but we can't let up," Mountain said. "We need to play with the same intensity in the second half to reach our goal of winning the section title."
Mars earned its 15th consecutive WPIAL playoff berth last season after finishing in a three-way tie for the Section 2-AA title with Knoch and Ambridge.
"We made it to the WPIAL quarterfinals before losing to Freeport in five sets," Mountain said. "So the win over Freeport in the first half was a little payback."
If Mars can win the section title outright and remain unbeaten, the Planets would most likely be the No. 2 seed in the tournament.
Mars began the second half of section play Thursday at Deer Lakes. The rematch with Freeport is Oct. 11 at Mars.
The Planets turned in an almost flawless performance at the MAC tournament. In pool play, Mars went 6-0 with two wins each against West Allegheny, Beaver and Quaker Valley. The Planets advanced to the title match with victories against Central Valley, 25-16, in the quarterfinals and Ambridge, 25-14, in the semifinals.
"The MAC tournament has been much better since they moved the big school teams into a separate bracket," Mountain said. "It's become one of the strongest tournaments in the WPIAL [during the regular season]."
Five starters returned from the 2011 team, including three who received postseason honors -- Jaden Zimmer, Katie King and Abby Matusik.
Zimmer, a 5-foot-10 senior middle hitter, was voted third-team All-WPIAL. King, a 5-8 senior setter, and Matusik, a 5-9 senior outside hitter, were voted to second-team All-Section 2-AA.
"Katie has run a 5-1 offense since halfway through her sophomore year," Mountain said. "She has matured very nicely into one of the top setters in the WPIAL."
Zimmer has been playing in the middle and on the outside this season.
"It's harder for opposing teams to defend against us when they don't know where Jaden is playing," Mountain said.
Mountain was pleased to see that Matusik was recognized at the MAC tournament.
"The coaches chose Abby as the MVP of the tournament," Mountain said. "There were a lot of good players in the tournament, but the coaches noticed that Abby does more than just hit. She's a good all-around competitor."
The other returning starters are Emily King and Melanie Dinderman. King, a 5-9 senior middle hitter, is Katie's twin sister. Dinderman is a 5-6 senior who has switched from back-row specialist to libero.
Other returning letter-winners are 5-10 senior right-side hitter Morgan Verplank, 5-6 senior back-row specialist Teresa Dallatore, and 5-7 senior defensive specialist Katherine Moraca.
Mountain also uses three juniors who had no previous varsity experience, 6-0 middle/right-side hitter Kelsey Bruce, 5-4 back-row specialist Maggie McKernan and 5-5 defensive specialist Alexi Zika.