The Derry Area High School boys volleyball team has played in the WPIAL Class AA title match three of the past four years, but all three title appearances have resulted in a loss to Ambridge Area.
"It's a significant accomplishment to play in the finals," Derry coach Shawn Spencer said. "It's not easy to get that far and a bit disappointing to have to settle for second best.
"The kids use it as motivation. They want to get back to the finals, want another chance to play Ambridge, and hopefully bring home a WPIAL title."
If everything goes as expected, Spencer and his squad will get that chance.
Ambridge and Derry entered this season as the top two teams in the WPIAL Class AA rankings, and remain there as we enter the second half of section play. Both teams are unbeaten in their section and are expected to finish that way.
The two teams even had a preview of the expected WPIAL title match, as Derry faced Ambridge in a non-section match that took place April 16. The Bridgers recorded a 3-0 victory, but the match was much closer than the score indicates.
"We were up, 23-22, in game two and lost, 25-23," Spencer said. "In game three, we had leads of 24-23, 25-24, and 26-25, but couldn't get that last point [and were defeated 29-27]. In that scenario, we have go for the win, instead of playing not to lose."
Spencer was obviously disappointed with the loss, but is glad his squad got to face the Bridgers before the WPIAL playoffs.
"There were some good learning points from that match," said Spencer, after reviewing the game tapes with his squad. "We saw some things that we did well and can build on. We also saw other areas in which we need to improve."
Derry begins the second half of Section 2 play tonight against visiting Deer Lakes. The Trojans have a 4-0 record in the section and a 6-2 mark overall in dual matches.
"Our other non-league loss was to North Allegheny," said Spencer, referring to the seven-time defending WPIAL Class AAA champs. "When St. Joseph dropped its program, we added two matches against North Allegheny, one at home and the other at NA. You have to beat the best to be the best."
Spencer's biggest concern coming into the season was to replace setter Andy Panizzi, who was voted to the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association All-State Team the past two years.
Jake Zemba, a 5-foot-10 junior, was named to replace Panizzi, but found himself on the disabled list 10 days into the season.
"Jake turned an ankle just prior to our first section match," Spencer said. "He was able to play in our first two tournaments, but missed the first half of section play."
With Zemba out of the picture, Sam Waters, a 6-0 senior outside hitter, stepped in and became the Trojans setter.
"Sam is every coach's dream," Spencer said. "He can play any position. He actually set for our Derry club team over the winter, so moving him into the starting role was not a concern. He's actually one of the best setters in the WPIAL in Class AA."
Zemba returned briefly for the match against Ambridge and was able to play a rotation of defense.
"Jake will be back in the lineup this week," Spencer said. "Sam will return to outside hitter, but we may use both in a 6-2 offense at times. It's nice to have that option with such talented setters."
Derry's lineup includes four players who were voted All-WPIAL Class AA last year, including first-team selection Matt Vasinko, a 6-2 senior outside hitter.
"Matt recently signed to play at Juniata College next year," Spencer said. "He recorded his 1,000th career kill last week against Latrobe."
Izaak Fulmer-Moffat, a 5-10 senior libero, and Ian Malis, a 6-2 junior middle hitter, were voted to the second team. Ethan Huston, a 6-4 senior outside hitter, was voted to the third team.
"Izaak and Matt are three-year starters who lettered as freshmen," Spencer said. "Izaak is one of the top liberos in the WPIAL."
Others in Derry's playing rotation are 6-2 senior middle hitter Troy Balega, 6-1 junior outside/right-side hitter Nico Latta, 5-9 senior defensive specialist Zak Hafer, 5-9 senior defensive specialist Dom Craine, and 5-8 junior defensive specialist Brody Patrick.