East Xtra: Consistency is a key goal for Plum

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One word can easily describe the 2014 version of the Plum High School boys volleyball team during the opening weeks of the season.

"Inconsistent," coach Michael Larko said. "We've been very inconsistent.

"We've had streaks where we are as good as any team we've played. But we've also had streaks of disappointing play. We have to become more consistent to become a good team."

Larko is in his third season as the Mustangs head coach.

"We lost a talented and leadership-heavy class of seniors last year so our current squad has big shoes to fill," said Larko, when asked for his season outlook on a questionnaire sent to all the WPIAL coaches at the start of the season.

"Our entire varsity squad will be upperclassmen who will be looked upon to lead this program. We believe that we have the talent to compete for a section title, but will need to play our best, develop throughout the season, and execute our game plans to be able to compete in our section."

He could have added: And be more consistent.

Plum has faced three section opponents so far. The Mustangs posted a 3-0 win against Penn Hills in their Class AAA Section 3 opener, then dropped a 3-0 decision to Penn-Trafford. Plum lost a home match against Greater Latrobe, 3-1, Tuesday.

"As always, I believe our section will be very competitive with multiple teams in the running for the section title," said Larko, who led the Mustangs to an 8-4 record and a third-place finish in the section last year. "We have a very competitive section and nobody is the clear-cut favorite."

Plum's inconsistency was especially evident in tournament appearances at North Allegheny and Derry Area.

"We had ups and downs throughout the day at North Allegheny, then lost in the first round of the playoffs to Penn-Trafford," Neely said. "We had the same things happen at the Derry tournament, but did beat Shaler in the first round of the playoffs before losing, 25-21, to Fox Chapel in the quarterfinals."

Larko has five returning starters, 5-foot-9 senior defensive specialist Brenden Grande, 5-10 senior libero Joey Pavia, 5-10 junior setter Tyler Arnold, 6-2 junior outside hitter Nathan Kunkel and 6-6 junior middle hitter Khaynen Yocca.

Grande missed time with a concussion and a sprained ankle last year.

"Tyler [Arnold] became our setter last year as a junior," Larko said. "We threw a lot at him last year. It's never easy starting at a key position as a sophomore. He's improved significantly since last year."

Yocca has become the Mustangs' top hitter, with Kunkel adding help on the outside.

"Khaynen played Junior Olympic ball during the summer and winter," Larko said. "He will be an offensive force for us this year. We try to get him the ball as much as possible, but it's a little tougher in the middle getting him as many sets as we would like."

Five newcomers have stepped into Plum's starting rotation, 6-3 junior Jack Murray, 5-8 junior Dom Grasso, 6-7 senior Austin Dedert, 6-0 senior Greg Ionadi and 5-9 junior Zach Crowe. Graso is a setter, while the others are front-row players.

Dedert was a standout on Plum's section title-winning basketball team this year.

"Jack has seen time at outside and middle hitter. Austin is a first-year [player as a senior] who has been switching between outside and right-side hitter. Greg has played at middle and outside hitter. Zach is an outside hitter," Larko said. "It's obvious that we haven't found our best lineup yet."

The Mustangs travel to Penn-Trafford for a section match tonight.

Plum will conduct its annual tournament on April 26. Larko is hoping to have 16 teams compete.

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