East Xtra: Norwin powers way to section title

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Al Warden has put together an impressive resume since taking over as Norwin High School's boys volleyball coach in 2004.

The Knights have won or shared nine section titles during his tenure, including another this season.

Following a 3-0 whitewashing of Greater Latrobe on Tuesday, Norwin has an 11-0 record in Class AAA Section 3 and has clinched the section crown.

The Knights have one section match remaining against neighboring rival Penn-Trafford (9-2) tonight. Latrobe is in third place at 8-3.

"We were section champs from 2004 until 2008, but shared three of those titles," Warden said.

"This year's section title marks our fourth in a row. It's been very rewarding to have the kids play so well during these two stretches."

Norwin placed third in the WPIAL last season but had to replace seven players from that squad who graduated, including five who were part of the starting rotation.

"I was worried coming into the season after losing so many talented players," Warden said. "I was worried about our size and our ball control.

"We're a much smaller squad than I've had in the past, so ball control and defense were the keys to our success."

Replacing setter Nick Farabaugh and middle hitter Nick Idele were Warden's biggest concerns. Idele was voted first-team All-WPIAL Class AAA last year. Farabaugh was a second-team selection.

"We always have a tall, dominating middle hitter," Warden said. "This year we don't have one."

With that in mind, Norwin has switched to a faster offense that features its outside hitters, especially right-side hitter Kevin Zabelski, a 6-foot-5 senior.

"Not many teams dominate from the right side," Warden said. "It's been a long time since I had a left-hander to play the right side. He fits the position well and has been our most consistent hitter."

Nick Nguyen, a 5-11 senior, has taken over the setting duties after spending the past two years as a defensive specialist.

"We are running a fast offense and Nick is very good at that," Warden said. "He's done a good job thus far, but is not a great leaper and is not a great blocker."

Other returning starters for Norwin are 6-2 senior outside hitter Aaron Shaffer, 6-2 senior middle hitter Joe Gurschecky and 6-4 senior libero Dan Conwell.

"Aaron has had some issues with his legs this year, so he's had to sit for some matches," Warden said. "When he's healthy, Aaron is our second-most leaned-on hitter. We're hoping to have him healthy for the playoffs.

"Jay is undersized for a middle hitter, but he's done very well on offense and blocking. Our section is loaded with big middles and he's handled his own against them.

"Dan is probably the biggest libero in the WPIAL. He came in as a 5-5 freshman, so we taught him to play defense and pass. He's since shot up to 6-4, but still likes playing in the back row."

Norwin's starting rotation includes four other players, 6-2 senior middle hitter Jake Kljucaric, 6-0 junior defensive specialist Zeke Kljucaric, 5-10 junior defensive specialist Robbie McMaster and 6-3 junior middle hitter A.J. Guffey.

"One of the keys to our success is that the kids are a tight-knit group," Warden said. "They are gym rats who began begging me in October to begin workouts.

"They like to have a good time."

Norwin entered the week No. 2 in the WPIAL Class AAA rankings, behind seven-time champion North Allegheny."

"It's a different year this year," Warden said. "Last year, North Allegheny was so much better than everybody in the state. This year, North Allegheny is still the team to beat, but not as strong as it was last season.

"There are four or five schools that could beat them, including us."

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