North Allegheny's hopes of defending its 2013 WPIAL Class AAA volleyball title took a huge hit last week when setter Beth Mullenkamp sustained a season-ending knee injury.
"It happened in a scrimmage," North Allegheny coach Heidi Miller said. "She tore the meniscus in her left knee. It's a real shame. It's her junior year, the time when college coaches come calling, but fortunately the doctors feel she will be back in time to play in the club season."
North Allegheny had already been hit hard by graduation losses, as nine members of last year's squad were seniors, including three All-WPIAL players. With Mullenkamp, a 5-foot-10 junior, out of the picture, Miller has only two players back with starting experience, 6-3 senior middle hitter Meg Morningstar and 6-5 senior opposite Lauren Schwartz.
Carly Knobeloch, a 5-9 junior, has the tough task of replacing Mullenkamp, who was voted third-team All-WPIAL Class AAA.
"The stars would have to align for us to defend our title," Miller said. "There are a lot of good teams in Class AAA this year. We have a long way to go to be in contention."
The favorite in Class AAA is Shaler. The Titans have seven starters returning from a squad that placed fourth in the WPIAL last season, including four All-WPIAL selections, 5-10 senior setter Annie Bozzo, 5-6 senior outside hitter/libero Lizzie Kline, 5-5 senior outside hitter Nicole Pilewski and 5-5 senior setter Natalie Pilewski.
Bozzo, a Syracuse recruit, and Kline, a Connecticut recruit, were voted to the WPIAL first team and the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association All-State Team.
"This is the best team I've ever coached," said Shaler coach Kris Ruppert, now in her 12th season. "If everybody stays healthy, we definitely have a shot at winning the title."
In Class AA, almost every team in last year's WPIAL playoff picture was hit hard by graduation. Of the 30 players recognized on the All-WPIAL Class AA team, only nine were underclassmen.
The favorite in Class AA is last year's champion Freeport. The Yellowjackets have been the most successful team in Class AA over the past five years. They've been to the finals four times and claimed two titles.
"The defending champ should be considered the team to beat," Seton-LaSalle coach Kevin Hummert said. "And from what I hear, Freeport might be as strong as last year's team. Every year they seem to have a strong team no matter who graduates."
Freeport lost five players to graduation, including four starters. The top returnees are 5-10 junior outside hitter Zoe Pawlak and 5-10 senior setter Grace Ward. Pawlak, considered one of the best players in the state, was voted first-team All-WPIAL Class AA and PVCA All-State. Ward was a third-team All-WPIAL selection.
In Class A, Bishop Canevin and Greensburg Central Catholic have met in the WPIAL title match the past two years. The Centurions won in 2012 and the Crusaders gained revenge in last year's title match. Both teams are expected to make a return trip to the finals, thus setting up a possible rubber match.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see both of us in the title match again this year," said Bishop Canevin coach Kevin Walters, when informed that his squad is the preseason favorite. "Both teams have a talented group of players returning. We just have to stay away from injuries."
Both teams feature two players who were recognized on the PVCA Class A All-State Team. Bishop Canevin is led by 5-9 junior setter Bailey McDonald and 5-9 junior outside hitter Erin Cunningham.
Greensburg C.C. is led by 6-1 senior setter/middle hitter Leah Bisignani and 5-8 senior outside/middle hitter Lauren Nolfi.
3. North Allegheny
8. Peters Township
9. Seneca Valley
2. Thomas Jefferson
4. South Fayette
6. Quaker Valley
9. South Park
1. Bishop Canevin
2. Greensburg C.C.
6. South Side Beaver
9. Serra Catholic
10. O.L. Sacred Heart