North Xtra: Top-ranked North Allegheny pushes toward finish line

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North Allegheny girls volleyball coach Heidi Miller reminded her squad that the end is within sight.

But hopefully not too soon.

"I reminded the girls that if we make it to the state championship match, we have only 17 practices left," Miller said. "So the end is within sight. That's why we have to keep working hard in every match and in every practice."

For most teams, this mindset would be wishful thinking.

For North Allegheny, a team that made it to the PIAA Class AAA semifinals last season and has most of that team back, it's an expectation that's clearly possible.

North Allegheny began the 2013 season as the team to beat in Class AAA, in both the WPIAL and Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association rankings, and that hasn't changed much as the Tigers enter the sixth week of the season.

"We're very optimistic about what we can accomplish this year," Miller said. "We went through that pressure situation last year and couldn't make it over the hump. This year is our year to go get it."

North Allegheny remains No. 1 in the WPIAL rankings, as the Tigers carry a 9-0 record into their Class AAA Section 3 match tonight against Seneca Valley. The Tigers, however, did relinquish their top spot in the PVCA rankings after losing in the semifinals of the State College tournament on Sept. 28.

"We lost, 25-23, to Parkland in the semifinals," Miller said. "And Parkland lost to [Landisville] Hempfield in the championship match. The loss actually rejuvenated the team. Sometimes a loss can be just as meaningful as a win. It sent a message to the girls."

North Allegheny was one of 16 teams entered in the State College tournament.

"It's the strongest tournament in the state," Miller said. "Most of the participants are in the state rankings. It gives each team a sample of what they will face in the state playoffs."

North Allegheny has been to the WPIAL semifinals the past four years, but fell short of a title berth in all four appearances.

"This is the biggest team I've ever had," Miller said. "And we have depth at every position. That makes our practices very competitive. We have very capable kids ready to step in if somebody gets hurt."

Miller has six starters returning from last year's squad, including four All-WPIAL players. Outside hitter Ashley Leto, a 5-foot-9 senior, was recognized on the first team. Middle hitter Meg Morningstar, a 6-2 junior, was voted to the second team. Right-side hitter Danielle Wall, a 5-11 senior, was a third-team selection. Middle hitter Erin Schwartz, a 6-2 senior, was voted to the third team in 2011, but missed part of last season with an injury.

"We are very big, but we have to do more than just hit and block well," said Miller, referring to the fact that all six returnees are 5 feet 9 or taller, with Morningstar and Schwartz standing in at 6-2. "We have to play good defense and pass well enough to take advantage of our size."

"Danielle and Erin are three-year starters," Miller said. "Ashley and Meg are two-year starters. Meg has committed to Notre Dame, Ashley to California University [of Pennsylvania], and Jessica [Samuels] to Clarion University."

Jessica Samuels is a 5-9 senior libero. The other key returnee is Jamie Robatisin, a 5-11 senior outside hitter and three-year letter-winner.

"I have 20 players on the varsity team and we've used all 20 in some matches this year," Miller said. "But our main rotation has 10 players."

Joining the six returnees are 5-10 sophomore setter Beth Muhlenkamp, 6-4 sophomore opposite Lauren Swartz, 5-4 senior defensive specialist Carol Li and 5-5 senior defensive specialist Shannon Weber.

"Beth has been the big shocker for people watching us this year," Miller said. "Our biggest concern coming into the season was to replace [graduated setter] Maura Nolan. Beth has done a fine job setting and is also an effective blocker."

Lauren Swartz is Erin's younger sister.

"I don't think there are many teams in the state that have a 6-4 kid sitting on the bench," Miller said. "Lauren brings a lot of energy when she steps on the court."

North Allegheny opened the week with a non-section win against Penn-Trafford on Monday. The Tigers defeated Fox Chapel, 3-0, on Tuesday, but are at home tonight against Seneca Valley.

"This is a big week for us," Miller said. "And we have another big match next Tuesday against Pine-Richland."


First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM


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