The Mars Area High School girls volleyball team set two school records in 2012. The Planets captured their first WPIAL title, then advanced to the PIAA semifinals for the first time.
Nine players from that team have since graduated, including three WPIAL all-stars. And coach Dan Mountain has moved on to Butler Area. That leaves new coach Tami Caraway with the unenviable task of rebuilding the Planets for the 2013 season.
"We don't have a player with overwhelming varsity experience on the floor right now," said Caraway, who was Mountain's assistant last year. "It's a real challenge, but it's been exciting watching them grow every day in practice."
Caraway is the mother of 2011 Mars graduate Lara Caraway, who is now a back-up defensive specialist at Penn State.
"I only have one year of coaching experience in the WPIAL, but I also coached in California," Caraway said. "I have a total of 15 years of coaching experience, including four years as a head coach at a high school in California, and four years as an assistant coach at Masters College."
Spending a season as Mountain's assistant has made the transition from assistant to head coach go very smoothly.
"My familiarity with the program and the girls has made the transition very easy," Caraway said. "Everyone has been so helpful."
Caraway does have one starter returning, but a shoulder injury has kept Kelsey Bruce off the court. Bruce is a 6-1 senior middle hitter who was second-team All-WPIAL Class AA last season.
"We're waiting for Kelsey to be cleared to play," Caraway said. "I'm not sure when she will be cleared. She will most likely miss the first week or two of the season."
When Bruce returns, she will have a different position.
"We're moving Kelsey to the middle," Caraway said. "We're hoping to have her back soon, because she's one of our leaders."
Bruce missed Tuesday's Section 4 opener against Deer Lakes. She will also miss today's non-section match against visiting Seneca Valley and Saturday's Shaler tournament.
Caraway will be using a 6-2 offense with inexperienced setters. Natalie Grice, a 5-2 senior, has returned after missing the 2012 season with an injury.
"Natalie was our JV setter as a sophomore, then blew out her knee last year," Caraway said. "She impresses me more each day in practice."
Grice will share the setting duties with two freshmen, 5-9 Julia Zimmer and 5-5 Rachel McKernan.
"We're using a 6-2 because of Natalie's size," Caraway said. "It would be tough to have her play in the front row."
Caraway does have four players returning who lettered last year: 5-6 senior libero Maggie McKernan, 5-4 senior outside hitter Alexi Zika, 5-8 junior outside hitter Cassie Berteotti and 5-4 junior defensive specialist Angela Botti.
The McKernan's are sisters and have a third sister on the varsity. Cassie McKernan, Rachel's twin, is a 5-6 freshman outside hitter.
Junior Hannah Both and sophomore Elice Sheehy take over at middle hitter. Both are 5-10.
"Hannah is a transfer from California," Caraway said. "They moved here when her dad got a job in this area. They came at Christmas time last year."
Caraway realizes that it will be hard, if not impossible, to match last year's incredible season, but is looking forward to the challenge of keeping Mars' string of 15 consecutive WPIAL playoff appearances alive.
"We may be short of experience, but the girls saw what it takes to be a playoff team," Caraway said. "I expect us to get better every week and continue growing. If we can do that, we will be in position to make a return trip to the playoffs."