It's not often that a first-year player makes an impact on a varsity volleyball team.
It's even more of a rarity to have multiple first-year players in that role.
Pine-Richland boys coach Dave Neely is fortunate to have four senior first-year players who have made a major contribution for the Rams.
"Alan Jacks talked four of his basketball teammates into joining him this year on the volleyball team," said Neely, referring to his 6-foot-3 senior outside hitter. "Alan joined the team last year as a junior and really enjoyed himself, so he convinced his friends to join."
The four first-year starters are 6-4 middle hitter Sam Dunsmore, 6-7 middle hitter Tim Williams, 6-3 opposite Nate Roberts and 5-7 back-row specialist Allan DeNisi.
"It's not very common to have first-year players, especially seniors, step in and make a contribution," Neely said. "It really helps to have them because we don't have a middle school program. Fortunately, we will be getting one next year."
The foursome of first-year seniors have given the Rams the depth required to be a serious contender in Class AAA Section 2.
"We have six starters back from last year, so the four first-year players have given us some much needed depth," Neely said. "All four are very athletic, so they are picking up things extremely well."
Pine-Richland found the going a bit rough as the season started, as the Rams lost their first three matches.
"We took Fox Chapel to five sets in our section opener and even served for match-point twice," Neely said. "But we couldn't close it out. We lost, 17-15, in the fifth set."
Pine-Richland lost in three sets to top-ranked North Allegheny in its next match, then took Butler Area to five sets before losing again.
"We faced the top three teams in our section in our first three matches and played well enough to win two of them," Neely said.
Since then, Pine-Richland has swept Seneca Valley and North Hills. That leaves the Rams tied with Seneca Valley for fourth place in the section at 2-3, with Wednesday night's match against Shaler Area as its first-half finale.
"We need to beat Shaler and pick up at least three more wins in the second half to qualify for the WPIAL playoffs," Neely said. "We were fortunate to qualify with five wins last year, but having six would assure us a berth."
Jacks is one of the six returning starters. The other five are 6-1 senior setter Kevin Kunkel, 6-0 senior outside hitter Mike Jones, 5-7 junior libero Jared Tdorowski, 6-2 junior middle hitter Nick Langer and 6-1 sophomore back-row specialist Tom Barone.
"Kevin [Kunkel] and Alan [Jacks] were second-team Section 2 all-stars last year," Neely said. "Kevin was also voted to the third team of the WPIAL all-star team. Both have provided good leadership."
Pine-Richland has competed in two tournaments, at North Allegheny and Derry, and advanced to the quarterfinals in both.
"We opened the season at the North Allegheny tournament and had to play without [Kunkel]," Neely said. "He sprained his ankle a week before the tournament, so we kept him out as a precautionary measure. Tom [Barone] filled in at setter that day."
Kunkel returned to the lineup for the section opener and has been healthy since then.
"At the Derry tournament, we lost to Norwin, 28-26," said Neely, referring to last year's WPIAL runner-up. "It showed us that we can compete against the top teams in the WPIAL."
Pine-Richland also faced Penn-Trafford in a non-league match. The Rams took the Warriors to five sets, but fell short.