North Xtra: Shaler a contender on the court

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The Shaler Area High School girls volleyball team is young, but surprisingly experienced.

The Titans had only one senior on last year's squad.

"We lost our libero to graduation," Shaler coach Kris Ruppert said "Everybody else is back, and we're still young. The difference is that this year's squad is experienced."

Ruppert has four seniors on this year's squad, and only two are part of the starting rotation.

"I've been using nine players in our starting rotation and only two are seniors," Ruppert said. "It's nice to know that most of them are back next year, too."

Ruppert, now in her 10th season, has led Shaler to eight consecutive WPIAL playoff appearances.

"We've qualified for the WPIAL playoffs every year, except for my first year," Ruppert said. "Our goal every year is to qualify and go as far as we can."

Shaler has made six WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinal appearances during Ruppert's tenure, but none of those squads was able to advance further.

"We have an experienced squad that plays well together," Ruppert said. "And many of my girls are playing club ball."

Shaler opened the season ranked No. 3 in the WPIAL Class AAA preseason rankings.

"North Allegheny and Pine-Richland are clearly the top two teams in the WPIAL," Ruppert said. "It's a free-for-all from No. 3 on down. Once you get past North Allegheny and Pine-Richland, you have several teams that are capable of beating each other on any given night."

Ruppert's starting lineup includes two All-WPIAL selections, 5-10 junior setter/right-side hitter Annie Bozzo and 5-5 junior outside hitter Liz Kline. Bozzo was voted to the WPIAL second team last season and third team as a freshman. Kline was a third-team pick last year.

"Annie is a tremendous athlete who is physically gifted," Ruppert said. "She has schools like Temple and Lehigh interested in her. Her only drawback is that she's transitioning over to setter later than usual. She's only been setting for one year.

"Liz is a tremendously skilled all-around athlete. She also plays basketball and softball. And she plays much bigger than her height. She's ranked by among the top 50 players [in the country] at her position and grade."

Bozzo and Kline are among four juniors who have started since their freshman year. The other two are twins Natalie and Nicole Pilewski. Natalie is Shaler's other setter, while Nicole is an outside hitter/libero.

"Both are 5 feet 4, but both jump well," Ruppert said. "It's nice to have four kids who have started since their freshman year."

The other five players in Ruppert's nine-player starting rotation are 5-7 junior opposite Hannah Bradford, 5-9 senior middle hitter Liz Rhodes, 5-11 junior middle/right-side hitter Julia Bernesser, 5-7 sophomore middle hitter Taylor Bostick, and 5-7 senior defensive specialist Laurel Gavin.

"We use Hannah on the left or right side, depending on whether Nicole plays," Ruppert said. "We also move Julia around, too. Both are very versatile."

Bozzo and and Kline are considered the Titans biggest offensive threats, but they are not alone.

"The nice thing about this squad is that we have four or five girls who can hit," Ruppert said. "We're more balanced that we've been in the past."

Shaler posted 3-0 shutouts in last week's Section 4-AAA matches against Gateway and Plum. The Titans also shut out McKeesport, 3-0, Tuesday and have a section bye tonight.

"We scheduled a non-section match for [tonight] against Pine-Richland," Ruppert said. "We also scheduled a non-section match against Seneca Valley. Those two matches will give us a good indication on where we should be ranked."

Shaler played host to a 17-team tournament last Saturday. The Titans advanced to the Gold Bracket -- which was the top level of competition -- but fell short in their attempt to make it to the title match.

"Traditionally, we don't play well in tournaments," Ruppert said. "We are much better in match play."



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