Our Lady of the Sacred Heart boys volleyball coach Mike McDonald referred to the 2013 squad as a "Cinderella team" after the Chargers surprised everybody by claiming the school's first PIAA berth.
The Chargers had to replace only one player from that squad, which placed third in the WPIAL Class AA tournament after being seeded sixth in the 12-team bracket, so McDonald is hoping for a repeat performance from this year's team in the postseason playoffs.
"Last year, we surprised everybody in the WPIAL playoffs," said McDonald, referring to upsets of Montour and Beaver County Christian, two teams that beat OLSH twice during the regular season. "This year, we will be one of the top seeds."
McDonald's squad will most likely be seeded No. 3 in the WPIAL Class AA bracket, behind Ambridge Area and Derry Area. Ambridge has won five WPIAL titles in the past six years and is considered a strong favorite to repeat. Derry has placed second three of the past four years and will be seeded No. 2 in all likelihood.
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was No. 4 in the WPIAL Class AA rankings until last week's five-set victory against No. 3 Beaver County Christian. The victory gave the Chargers a split in their Section 1 home and home series with the Eagles.
The victory also capped the Chargers section record at 5-3. Beaver County Christian also finished at 5-3 in section play after upsetting Ambridge, 3-2, on Tuesday. The Eagles record also includes a loss to Montour.
"Our win against [Beaver County Christian] was huge," McDonald said. "It allows us to finish second in the section and could earn us the No. 3 seed in the bracket. My thought going in was that the winner would get the No. 3 seed and the loser would be No. 4."
The WPIAL Volleyball Steering Committee will meet Monday to determine playoff seedings and pairings.
"Ambridge is really good," McDonald said. "We are the only [Class AA] team to win a set against them, and we did it twice. But in the other games, we didn't really threaten them. Ambridge will be hard to beat."
McDonald is hoping for a semifinal rematch with Derry, but will be quick to remind his squad that being a higher seed doesn't guarantee a first-round victory.
"We have to be ready for every match," said McDonald, now in his 21st season as the OLSH coach. "We can't afford to overlook anybody."
The Chargers are led by a pair of WPIAL all-stars, Shaughn McDonald and Alex Ritter. McDonald, a 6-foot-1 senior outside hitter who is Mike McDonald's son, is a two-time Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association All-State selection and a three-time All-WPIAL first-team selection. He is also a St. Francis University (Pennsylvania) recruit.
"Ambridge's Lee Smith is recognized as the best Class AA player in the WPIAL," McDonald said. "If Shaughn is not equal to [Smith], then he's right behind him. He's a great team leader who tries to motivate his teammates."
Ritter, also a 6-1 senior outside hitter, is a three-year starter who was voted second-team All-WPIAL last year.
"Alex is our most improved player since last season," McDonald said. "I'm glad to see that he will be playing at D'Youville College in Buffalo next year."
Other seniors in McDonald's starting rotation are 6-5 middle hitter Nick Metz, 6-4 opposite Kendall Paige, 5-10 setter Ian Alexander and 5-11 serving specialist Jay Pflugh.
"Nick and Kendall are basketball players who joined our team midway through last season," McDonald said. "Both have picked up the finer points of volleyball very quickly. In fact, Kendall had his best match against BCCS."
Alexander was the Chargers backup setter last year.
"We gave Ian the keys to the car this year and he's adjusted well to his starting role," McDonald said. "Looking at his improvement since last year is like night and day."
McDonald has a pair of sophomores in his starting rotation, 6-4 middle hitter Colin Neville, and 5-10 back-row specialist Sean Cahalan.
"We still have some flaws, but we're playing our best coming into the playoffs," Mike McDonald said. "If our guys can do what they are capable of, we will do very well in the playoffs."