North Xtra: Avonworth perseveres to reach tournament


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When Avonworth girls volleyball coach Doug Vandervort heard that senior middle hitter Mackenzie Mayernik had sustained a serious knee injury months before the 2013 season began, he wondered if it was a bad omen.

"Mackenzie suffered a knee injury in March while playing basketball," said Vandervort, who pointed out that Mayernik is hoping to be ready for the upcoming basketball season.

"When it happened, I briefly thought about the fact that it's 2013 and my 13th season of coaching. I was hoping that it wasn't a sign of things to come."

Vandervort's fears were realized at the end of August, when freshman right-side hitter Olivia Alexander incurred a season-ending shoulder injury while playing basketball.

"Olivia would have been a starter," Vandervort said. "She's an up-and-coming star, but we'll have to wait until next season for her volleyball debut."

Losing a pair of 5-foot-11 starters was something new for Vandervort.

"Prior to this season, I had only one player suffer a season-ending injury," Vandervort said. "It's been a bad year for injuries."

And the bad luck didn't stop there. In fact, it got worse ... much worse.

"The first Friday of September, Ericka Thomas' mother was killed in a car accident," said Vandervort, referring to a senior back-row specialist who was voted team captain by her teammates.

"That's something you don't get over right away. It hit the whole team real hard because the girls are so close. Everybody felt the pain. Fortunately, she's had a lot of support from the community."

The death of a player's mother plus the injuries could have been devastating to the program. But instead the Antelopes have overcome the adversity to qualify for the WPIAL Class A playoffs.

Avonworth tied with South Side Beaver for second place in Section 4-A with a 9-3 record.

"When you consider the adversity we've dealt with this season, the girls have a lot to be proud of," Vandervort said. "They could have used it as an excuse, but instead overcame the adversity and had a very good season."

Avonworth was seeded No. 11 in the 19-team bracket and faced No. 6 seed West Shamokin Wednesday night in the first round of the WPIAL tournament.

"We should have been seeded higher," Vandervort said. "We had the toughest non-league schedule of any team in Class A. In fact, I don't know of any team in the WPIAL that had a tougher non-league schedule."

Avonworth beat Beaver Area, Seton-LaSalle and Quaker Valley, a trio of Class AA schools, and Hampton, a Class AAA school. The Antelopes lost to Butler, another Class AAA school, Knoch, a Class AA program, and Bishop Canevin, the top team in Class AA.

"I prefer a tougher schedule because it helps prepare us for the postseason," Vandervort said.

Unfortunately, the bad luck didn't stop.

"We lost another player to an injury two weeks ago," said Vandervort, referring to Taylor Jenkins, a 5-8 junior outside hitter. "She was injured before our second-half match against OLSH. She will not be back for the playoffs."

Jenkins was one of 10 players Vandervort used in the Antelopes starting rotation.

Avonworth's top two players -- Katie Pendrak and Olivia London -- were All-Section 4 selections last season. Pendrak, a 6-1 senior middle hitter and three-year starter, was voted to the first team. London, a 5-10 senior middle hitter and two-year starter, was a second-team selection.

Also in the Antelopes starting rotation are 5-4 senior defensive specialist Abby Turnbull, 5-5 senior defensive specialist Olivia McKay, 5-10 sophomore outside hitter Abby Oberdick, 6-0 sophomore middle hitter Sierra Hartings, 5-10 freshman opposite Katie Gold, 5-4 junior defensive specialist Caitlyn Miller and 5-7 freshman setter Whitney Brown.

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