South Xtra: Coaching change hasn't deterred Keystone Oaks volleyball team

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When Mike DiPaolo stepped down as girls volleyball coach at Keystone Oaks two years ago, his assistant, Ben Van Balen, stepped in to take the reins.

The same scenario has taken place with the boys program, as Van Balen has replaced DiPaolo, who has retired from coaching.

"I've had enough," DiPaolo said. "I was the boys coach for 10 years. I also coached girls for three years at North Hills, two years at Keystone Oaks, and 11/2 years at Point Park [University]. I love volleyball, but my coaching career is over."

One reason for DiPaolo's retirement is his upcoming wedding.

"I just got back from a four-day trip to Mexico," Van Balen said. "Six of us went with Mike for his bachelor party. It was a great time, now I've got to get back to coaching."

Van Balen was DiPaolo's assistant with the boys team for five years. He was an assistant with the girls program one season and now has two seasons as head coach under his belt.

"The transition from assistant to head coach has been pretty easy," said Van Balen, a 2004 Keystone Oaks graduate. "I know all the kids and the faculty at the high school. It's just a little tough not working at the high school. It's tough to recruit kids [from the student body] when you're not at the high school."

Van Balen is vice president of Triangle Air Conditioning Company, a family business started in 1952.

"I'm fortunate that my job gives me a little flexibility to coach," Van Balen said.

Keystone Oaks won the Class AA Section 3 title last year and advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals before losing to Derry Area, the eventual runner-up.

"We lost three players from that team to graduation, including two starters," Van Balen said. "Both are playing in college now."

Setter J.T. Lippert, a three-year starter, is playing at Penn State-Behrend. Outside hitter Jeff Coffy is playing at Thiel.

"Our biggest concern coming into the season was to find a setter," Van Balen said.

Coby Phillippi, a 5-foot-10 junior and the quarterback of KO's football team, has taken over the setting duties, despite being a first year player.

Numbers have been a problem at Keystone Oaks for the past few years.

"We've never had more than 20 players," Van Balen said. "This year we have 12."

Van Balen has built this year's squad around two seniors who were recognized on the All-Section 3 team last year. Braydon Griffiths, a 6-2 senior outside hitter, was a first-team selection and a third-team pick on the All-WPIAL team.

"Braydon is our captain," Van Balen said. "He's our top hitter and our leader."

Kurt Rahner, a 6-1 senior outside hitter, was voted second-team all-section.

"He is a three-year starter who has started at libero, opposite and now outside hitter," Van Balen said. "Kurt is one of four players on our squad who also play soccer. He has transitioned into a very good player."

Other returning starters are 6-0 junior middle hitter Vince Lusardi, 6-4 junior opposite Dominick Agurs and 5-10 senior libero Stephen Marian. Agurs has moved from middle hitter to opposite.

Also on the roster are 5-5 junior defensive specialist Jeremy Diven, 6-0 senior outside hitter Dennis Kostic, 6-3 senior middle hitter Erat Ojok, 5-10 junior outside hitter/libero Eddie O'Conner, 6-2 sophomore middle hitter Jake Wilson and 6-1 sophomore middle hitter Jared Chesler.

Keystone Oaks is 3-0 in Section 3 after defeating Thomas Jefferson, 3-2, on Tuesday. With the loss TJ dropped to 3-1. The Golden Eagles played at Obama Academy on Wednesday.

"We should have no problem qualifying for the playoffs in this section," Van Balen said. "It's just a question of where we finish in the section."

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