Michael Larko came into his first season as Plum High School's boys volleyball coach with a tradition of success to uphold.
The Mustangs had qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs 10 of the previous 12 years.
Larko had some pretty big shoes to fill. His father, also named Mike Larko, started Plum's boys program in 1974 and served on its coaching staff 30 years during three different stints.
"Dad felt I was ready to take over the program and I welcomed the challenge," Michael Larko said.
He was clearly up to the challenge. Plum earned another WPIAL Class AAA playoff berth last season by placing third in Section 3 with an 8-4 record. The Mustangs posted a 3-0 victory in the opening round against Butler Area, then gave Seneca Valley all it could handle before bowing in the quarterfinals by a deceptive 3-0 score.
"My goal is to continue the tradition my dad built at Plum," Michael Larko said. "Last season was a good start."
Larko's squad is off to a solid start again this season. The Mustangs have a 2-2 record in Section 3, which ties them with Greater Latrobe for third place in the section.
Plum had its ups and downs last week. The Mustangs posted a 3-2 upset of Latrobe last week, then dropped a 3-0 decision to Penn-Trafford on Thursday.
"Latrobe was ranked No. 2 in the preseason WPIAL rankings," said Larko, who pointed out that Latrobe played that match short-handed. "They had a starter out of the lineup and another got hurt midway through the match. We used that to our advantage."
The WPIAL rankings were updated on Tuesday and Plum is No. 6. Penn-Trafford is No. 3 and Norwin is No. 5, while Latrobe dropped to No. 8.
"Four of the top eight teams in the WPIAL rankings are from Section 3," Larko said. "That's a good indication of how strong this section is."
Plum lost to Norwin, 3-0, on Tuesday. The Mustangs play host to Hempfield tonight, then conclude the first half of section play with a match at Gateway.
Penn-Trafford (5-0) leads the section standings, followed by Norwin (4-0) with Hempfield, Latrobe and Plum tied for third at 2-2.
"We lost four players who graduated, including our setter, from last year's team," Larko said. "We also had a junior [middle hitter John Kann] move to Florida.
"With that in mind, our senior class will be leaned on heavily to lead this team. Overall, we have a quality group of student-athletes who will continue to grow and improve throughout the season."
Larko has three returning starters in 6-foot-2 senior outside hitter Bryan Parker, 6-0 senior middle hitter Matt Shepherd and 6-2 senior outside hitter Dan Szurley. They are the Mustangs only returning lettermen.
"Bryan is a three-year starter," Larko said. "Matt and Dan are two-year starters. Dan has moved from the right side to the left side."
Larko has turned to Tyler Arnold, a 5-10 sophomore, to handle the setting duties.
"It's a tough position for a sophomore to step into, but he's coming along fine," Larko said. "We're running a 5-1 offense."
The other newcomers to Plum's starting rotation are 6-2 sophomore outside hitter/opposite Nathan Kunkel, 6-5 sophomore middle hitter Khaynen Yocca, 6-0 sophomore middle hitter Greg Ionadi, 6-2 sophomore middle/outside hitter Jack Murray and 5-10 junior libero Joey Pavia.
Others who see significant playing time are 5-5 junior defensive specialist Andy Marzullo, 5-8 senior defensive specialist Sean Doyle, 5-10 senior setter Tyler Mitlo and 5-9 junior defensive specialist Brendan Grande.
Plum has participated in two tournaments, North Allegheny and Derry. The Mustangs lost in the first round of the playoffs in both tournaments.
First Published April 11, 2013 4:00 AM