Norwin High School's girls volleyball program ranks second in WPIAL history, as the Knights claimed 15 WPIAL titles under retired hall of fame coach Sheron Watson.
But the last of those titles came in 1988. Norwin has not been a serious threat to win a WPIAL title since the early '90s. In fact, the Knights entered the 2011 season with a five-year playoff drought.
"It's been a while since Norwin has been to the WPIAL playoffs," said Knights coach Mary Ellen Ferragonio, now in her sixth season at the helm. "One of our goals this season was to end the playoff drought and qualify for the playoffs."
Norwin reached that goal with last Thursday's 3-2 win against Kiski Area. After defeating Latrobe, 3-0, Tuesday, the Knights have a 9-2 record in Section 1-AAA, only a half game behind section front-runner Penn-Trafford (9-1).
Norwin celebrated Senior Night on Tuesday. The Knights conclude their section schedule tonight at Penn-Trafford. A victory there would clinch a share of the section title.
"Our only section losses in the first half were to Latrobe and Penn-Trafford," Ferragonio said. "Our hope was to avenge both losses in the second half."
Hempfield Area (6-5), Kiski Area (5-6) and Latrobe are battling for the third playoff berth in Section 1-AAA. Hempfield defeated Kiski, 3-2, on Tuesday and travels to Latrobe tonight.
"The section is so balanced this year," Ferragonio said. "We have so many equally balanced teams. In fact, many of our matches went to five sets. That's how close this section is."
Ferragonio built her squad around three returning starters, 5-foot-11 senior middle hitter Rachel Keto, 5-9 junior outside hitter Hanna Evanchak and 5-9 junior outside hitter Catherine Ferragonio, her daughter.
Keto and Ferragonio were voted second-team All-Section 1-AAA last season. Keto is a three-year starter, while Ferragonio and Evanchak are two-year starters.
"I never bring freshmen up to the varsity," coach Ferragonio said. "It gives them another year to develop before they move to the varsity. It also gives the older kids a chance to play. I didn't bring up Catherine when she was a freshman. The same is true for my younger daughter, Maria, who is now a freshman."
Last season, Catherine Ferragonio was a setter for the Knights. This season, she's an outside hitter.
"She plays where I need her," coach Ferragonio said of her daughter. "Last year, we needed a setter. This year, we needed her as a ball handler in the back row and a hitter in the front row. Having her on the outside makes us a better team."
Keto has stepped into the role of goto hitter.
"Rachel has stepped up as a leader," Ferragonio said. "We try to set her as often as possible, but we don't have to rely on her. We have other hitters make a significant contribution."
Emily Best, a 5-7 senior, and Lindsay Smith, a 5-7 junior, have taken over the setting duties. Both were setters for the JV team last year.
"Both have done a fine job," Ferragonio said. "We also use Catherine at setter occasionally."
Hannah Cabarney, a 5-9 junior, has taken over as the Knights other middle hitter, while sophomore Reilly Parker, a 5-6 sophomore, has stepped into the libero role.
Sydney Black, a 5-8 senior, and Laura Buchanan, a 6-3 sophomore, have seen time on the right side.
"We recently moved Laura into the starting lineup," Ferragonio said. "It's hard to keep a 6-foot-3 girl out of the lineup. She just needed some time to get adjusted to playing at the varsity level."
Ferragonio also uses three seniors in the back row, 5-4 Rebecca McHugh, 5-6 Kayla Albert and 5-7 Magen Caputo.
"It's great to be back in the playoffs," Ferragonio said. "We're really looking forward to it."
Norwin will play host to a 10-team tournament Saturday. The other nine participants are Blackhawk, Derry, Greensburg Central Catholic, Greensburg Salem, Indiana, Keystone Oaks, Kittanning, Latrobe, and Penns Manor. The tournament will start at 9 a.m.