North Xtra: North Allegheny rates as WPIAL favorite again

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North Allegheny boys volleyball coach Dan Schall has a much different squad this year as compared to last season's team, but the Tigers are still considered the team to beat in the WPIAL Class AAA tournament, which begins next week.

The Tigers are lacking the stars that dominated last year's squad, which claimed its seventh consecutive WPIAL title and a PIAA title for the first time since 1999.

"We had a very experienced squad last year with quite a few kids who had been starters for multiple years," Schall said.

He was referring to four players who were recognized on the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association All-State team -- outside hitter Tommy Keisling, setter Joe Murphy, libero Suyash Fulay and opposite Justin Zweig.

"This year's squad is dominated by players who backed up our eight seniors," Schall said. "They have been patiently waiting for their chance to start. That's the thing I like the most about this team. These kids have a hunger to make the best of their opportunity. They want to keep the streak going."

North Allegheny has won every WPIAL title since the PIAA added a second classification in 2007. The Tigers also won titles three of the four years before the change. That means North Allegheny has won 10 titles in 11 years under Schall.

Despite its significant graduation attrition, North Allegheny has been ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL all season. The unbeaten Tigers are clearly a favorite to repeat, but not as dominant as they were last year.

"I can't remember a year in which we've had so much parity in the WPIAL," Schall said. "It wouldn't surprise me to see any of the eight teams that make it to the quarterfinals win the title. Any one of those teams could come out on top. We may be the favorite, but we can't afford to overlook anybody."

North Allegheny dropped a section match to Seneca Valley Tuesday, its first section loss. The Tigers are 10-1 in Class AAA Section 2 and have already clinched the section title. The Tigers also have non-section victories against Derry Area and another against Norwin, the No. 2-ranked team in Class AAA. Derry is ranked No. 2 in Class AA.

Schall has built this year's squad around four seniors who were part of North Allegheny's starting rotation last year, 6-foot-5 middle hitter Brendan Brown, 6-1 outside hitter David Haus, 6-3 outside hitter Mitch Higgins and 5-10 defensive specialist Luke Gwaltney. Brown was voted to the PVCA All-State team last year.

"Brendan is a great leader," Schall said. "He's got a great work ethic and makes a great contribution as both a hitter and blocker. He earned all-state honors last year and should be on that list again this year.

Haus and Higgins shared an outside hitting position last year.

"David and Mitch have different styles," Schall said. "David is a great all-round player who excels at ball control. Mitch is a home run hitter. He's got a really strong arm and is a force offensively."

Gwaltney is one of three players who have split playing time in the back row. The others are David Henderson and Ethan DeRubbo, a pair of 5-8 juniors. All three have seen time at libero and defensive specialist.

"Our biggest concern coming into the season was to replace Joe Murphy," said Schall, referring to the Tigers setter the past three years. "Fortunately, Antonios Balouris has stepped in and become our rock. He's become a great leader on the court."

Balouris is a 6-1 senior who was Murphy's understudy the past two years. He's making the best of his opportunity to start.

Schall has used a 12-player rotation that also includes 6-2 junior opposite/setter Jeremy Best, 6-2 senior middle hitter Patrick O'Neil, 6-2 junior middle hitter Robert Stiefvater, 5-9 junior serving specialist Matt Nichol and 6-3 junior outside hitter/opposite Brennan Hennigan.

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