It's easy to see why the Derry Area boys volleyball team is No. 2 in the WPIAL Class AA rankings.
Just take a look at the Trojans' performance in the two tournaments in which they have participated so far this season.
Derry opened the season tying for third place at the 16-team North Allegheny tournament, which is considered one of the strongest tournaments in the state.
"We made it to the semifinals before losing to Ambridge," said Derry coach Shawn Spencer of the top-ranked Class AA Bridgers. "Ambridge went on to beat North Allegheny in the title match."
One week later, Derry played host to a 16-team tournament, which also ranks among the top tournaments in the state.
"We made it to the championship match before losing to North Allegheny," said Spencer of the Tigers, the top-ranked team in WPIAL Class AAA. "So our losses are to the top-ranked team in each class."
Derry finished the first half of play in Section 2 with a perfect 5-0 record.
"We break the season into three parts: the first half of section play, the second half and the playoffs," Spencer said. "Overall, we're very pleased with what we accomplished in the first third of the season. Now we start the middle third of the journey. And then we start all over again for the playoffs."
Derry had two non-league matches scheduled this week: Monday against Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Wednesday at Greater Latrobe.
"Our goal is to keep trying to get better," said Spencer, now in his eighth season. "There's still room for improvement."
Derry has three starters back from last year's squad, which placed second in the WPIAL, including two first-team WPIAL all-stars, Andy Panizzi and Matt Vasinko.
Panizzi, a 6-foot senior setter, had 357 assists, 34 kills and 12 aces going into this week. Vasinko, a 6-3 junior outside hitter, led the team with 155 kills.
"Andy and Matt are both two-year starters," Spencer said. "I feel Andy is the best setter in the WPIAL in Class AA. Matt is our biggest offensive threat. Both have been outstanding in our big matches."
The third returning starter is Izaak Fulmer-Moffat, a 5-10 junior libero who had 140 digs.
"Izaak is also a two-year starter," Spencer said. "He stabilizes our defense. He's excellent at reading opponents and gets to balls that other guys can't get to."
Three other Trojans are returning lettermen, 6-4 senior middle hitter Nick McNutt (40 kills and 25 blocks), 6-4 junior right-side hitter Ethan Houston (36 kills) and 6-0 senior outside hitter Josh Wanamaker (95 kills).
"Nick and Ethan saw very limited playing time last year," Spencer said. "I'm very happy with how well both have done.
"Josh would have lettered last year, but he missed the season with a torn ACL. He's unknown to most of the teams we face because nobody got to see him play last year."
Spencer's starting rotation also includes six newcomers. Troy Balega and Ian Malis, 6-1 sophomores, have been splitting time at middle hitter with McNutt. Sam Water, a 6-0 junior, has seen significant time at outside hitter.
The other three newcomers are back-row specialists: 5-6 junior Zak Hafer, 5-9 junior Dom Craine and 5-9 sophomore Jake Zemba.
Derry lost to Ambridge in five sets in last year's WPIAL title match.
"Ambridge is clearly the team to beat," Spencer said. "There's no doubt about that. On paper, Ambridge has talent at every position. It will be tough for anybody to beat them.
"If we are lucky enough to get back to the finals, anyone has a chance. Hopefully, we will get another chance to play them in the finals."
Derry is entered in Saturday's Central York tournament, which is considered by many to be the strongest tournament in the state.
"We'll get a chance to see Northeastern, Ambridge, and [defending PIAA champion] Bethlehem Catholic, three of the top teams in the state," Spencer said. "In fact, almost all of the top-ranked teams in the state will be there. This tournament will be a good measuring stick for us."