It's tough enough to win a WPIAL girls volleyball title. Winning back-to-back titles has become a rarity.
In the past six years, only one team has won consecutive WPIAL titles. West Allegheny achieved the feat in 2008 and 2009.
With that in mind, plus the fact that Mt. Lebanon, Mars and Greensburg Central Catholic were hit hard by graduation losses, the trio of 2012 WPIAL champions will be hard pressed to repeat as the 2013 season begins tonight.
Repeating in Class AAA has been especially tough. Only one school has won back-to-back titles since 2000, the year the PIAA expanded to three classifications. Baldwin claimed titles in 2002 and 2003.
Mt. Lebanon has won three Class AAA titles in the past six years, but none came in consecutive years. The Blue Devils lost five players to graduation, including WPIAL Class AAA most valuable player Caroline Grattan. Also gone is coach Jeff Schilling, who retired. And making matters even worse, the Blue Devils will have to play all of their home matches at Chartiers Valley due to renovations taking place at Mt. Lebanon.
"Just finding an adequate place to practice has been a challenge," said Mike Switala, who has taken over as head coach after assisting Schilling the past seven years. "Repeating as WPIAL champions is one of our goals, but it will not be easy with all of our matches on the road."
Mt. Lebanon does have two WPIAL Class AAA All-Stars returning, as middle hitters Alexa Pavlick and Megan Riemer are back. Both were voted to the second team last year.
The team to beat in Class AAA is North Allegheny. The Tigers have been to the WPIAL semifinals the past four years but fell short of a title berth in all four appearances.
North Allegheny has six starters returning, including four WPIAL All-Stars. Outside hitter Ashley Leto was recognized on the first team, middle hitter Meg Morningstar was voted to the second team and right-side hitter Danielle Wall was a third-team selection. Middle hitter Erin Schwartz was voted to the third team in 2011 but missed parts of last season with an injury.
"We are very big, but we have to do more than just hit and block well," said North Allegheny coach Heidi Miller, referring to the fact that all six returnees are 5 feet 9 or taller, with Morningstar and Schwartz standing in at 6 feet 2. "We have to play good defense and pass well enough to take advantage of our size."
In Class AA, Mars was hit even harder by graduation and coaching losses. The Planets lost nine players to graduation, including three WPIAL All-Stars. Coach Dan Mountain stepped down after leading Mars to six consecutive WPIAL playoff appearances to accept the same position at Butler, where he has been employed as a history teacher for 10 years.
Assistant coach Tami Caraway has been promoted to replace Mountain. Caraway's top returnee is right-side hitter Kelsey Bruce, a second-team WPIAL All-Star.
The favorite in Class AA is Freeport. The Yellowjackets have been a WPIAL finalist three of the past four years and claimed their first title in 2010. Coach Tom Phillips lost only three players to graduation.
"Absolutely," said Phillips, when asked whether his team was worthy of being ranked No. 1. "We did lose three key players to graduation, but we've got a good group of kids coming back who have significant varsity experience. And we have our best freshman class coming in that I've ever had."
Freeport is led by two WPIAL All-Stars. Middle/outside hitter Alexis Schrecengost was voted to the first team, while outside hitter Zoey Pawlak was a second-team pick. Pawlak was the only freshman recognized on the Class AA All-Star team.
In Class A, Greensburg Central Catholic claimed its first WPIAL title after two silver-medal performances. The Centurions lost five starters to graduation, including WPIAL Class A most valuable player Shannon Hurley and three other WPIAL All-Stars.
The team to beat in Class A is Bishop Canevin. The Crusaders, last year's runners-up, have never won a WPIAL title.
"It's a nice honor to enter the season as the WPIAL favorite," Bishop Canevin coach Kevin Walters said. "We have the talent and experience required to win a WPIAL title. We just have to wait and see how things unfold."
Bishop Canevin has four WPIAL All-Stars returning. Outside hitter Ashley Grimm was voted to the first team, setter/right-side hitter Bailey McDonald and outside hitter Erin Cunningham were second-team picks and middle hitter Callie Jacobs was a third-team selection.