The North Allegheny girls volleyball team looked impressive in the opening round robin of the Little Lion Invitational, which took place Sept. 29 at State College High School.
The Tigers placed first in their morning pool after sweeping Susquehannock, Sharpsville and Altoona.
That earned North Allegheny one of eight berths in the Gold Bracket. But the Tigers fortunes changed during the afternoon round robin, when setter Maura Nolan sustained a stress fracture in her foot.
"There's never a good time for an injury, but losing your setter in the middle of one of the strongest tournaments in the state, it couldn't have come at a worse time," North Allegheny coach Heidi Miller said.
North Allegheny limped home after posting a disappointing 2-4 record in their pool.
"Maura also missed our next four matches, including three in the section," Miller said. "It's a much different feel without her in the lineup. We've had to use three players to replace her."
Nolan, a 5-foot-7 senior, was voted first-team All-WPIAL Class AAA last year. The trio of underclassmen who have tried to fill her shoes are 5-0 sophomore Camille Kimmich, 5-10 junior Jessica Samuels and 5-9 freshman Beth Muhlenkamp.
"Camille has been setting in the back row, but we have to sub for her when she rotates to the front row because of her height," Miller said.
"Jessica was already in the lineup as one of our outside hitters. Now we have her setting.
"We've also used Beth [as a setter]. It hasn't been easy, but injuries are something every team has to deal with at some point during a season."
North Allegheny has played three matches since Nolan's injury and came away with victories in all three. The Tigers beat Shaler Area and Penn-Trafford in non-section games and Hampton in a Section 3-AAA match.
Coincidentally, the Tigers also had Erin Swartz out of the lineup for all three matches. Swartz, a 6-2 junior middle hitter, was a third-team selection on the WPIAL all-star team last year.
"Erin has tendinitis in her shoulder," said Miller, now in her second season as NA's head coach.
Swartz returned to the lineup for Tuesday's Section 3-AAA showdown with Fox Chapel, but Nolan was held out for a fourth consecutive match.
"Stress fractures are tricky," Miller said. "The prescription is rest, but it's a bad time to have your setter resting when you're in the biggest three-match stretch of the season. We have to be cautious with Maura, because we don't want to lose her for the season."
After losing to Fox Chapel, 3-1, Tuesday, North Allegheny finds itself tied with Pine-Richland for first place in Section 3-AAA with 7-2 records.
The Tigers are one of four teams in the section vying for three WPIAL playoff berths. In addition to Pine-Richland, Fox Chapel (7-3) and Seneca Valley (6-3) also figure in the playoff race.
North Allegheny will play all three in a 10-day stretch. The Tigers play at Seneca Valley tonight, then face Pine-Richland Tuesday.
"Those three matches will determine where we finish in the section standings," Miller said. "We're hoping to have Maura back for the Seneca Valley match. We'll just have to wait and see."
Nolan and Swartz are two of three North Allegheny players recognized on last year's WPIAL Class AAA all-star team. The other is Kristen Mitchell, a 5-5 senior libero, who was voted to the second team.
"We have four or five seniors who hope to play in college," Miller said.
The other five seniors in North Allegheny's rotation are 6-0 outside hitter Ava Mosbacher, 5-11 middle hitter Katie Humes, 5-6 defensive specialist Rachel Samuels, 5-3 defensive specialist Cindy Chao and 5-8 outside hitter Morgan Fischer,
"Ava is a three-year starter who suffered an ACL injury midway through last season," Miller said. "She's healthy this year and finally getting a chance to show what she can do."
Other underclassmen in North Allegheny's rotation are 5-9 junior outside hitter Ashley Leto, 5-11 junior opposite Danielle Wall and 6-1 sophomore middle hitter Meg Morningstar.