Take a look at history and it's easy to see why North Allegheny and Ambridge are No. 1 in the WPIAL boys volleyball rankings.
North Allegheny has won seven consecutive WPIAL Class AAA titles and 10 of the past 11.
"Until somebody knocks them off, North Allegheny has to be considered the favorite in the WPIAL," Penn-Trafford coach Jim Schall said.
North Allegheny won WPIAL and PIAA titles last year, but eight players from that team have graduated, including four 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.
"All eight [graduates] were either starters or role players," said Dan Schall, North Allegheny's coach and Jim's brother. "It's tough to lose that much talent in one class, but one thing that people overlook is that our backups were facing those starters each day in practice.
"We have a talented group of kids who have been waiting for their chance to move into the starting lineup. The experience they picked up in practice helped prepare them for this opportunity."
North Allegheny does have four players returning with significant varsity experience, including Brendan Brown, a 6-foot-5 senior middle hitter who was voted to the PVCA All-State Team. The other three returning lettermen are 6-1 senior outside hitter David Haus, 6-3 senior outside hitter Mitch Higgins and 5-10 senior defensive specialist Luke Gwaltney.
"Haus and Higgins shared an outside hitter position last year," Dan Schall said. "This year, both are starting."
North Allegheny's stiffest competition in the WPIAL should come from a team in its section, Fox Chapel. The Foxes have two All-WPIAL Class AAA players on their roster. Michael Eisner, a 6-2 senior opposite, was voted to the second team, while Jaysen Zaleski, a 6-2 junior middle hitter, was a third-team selection.
"There's a lot of parity in the WPIAL in Class AAA this year," Dan Schall said. "There are a lot of teams within reach of each other. Our kids embrace the challenge of keeping our streak [of WPIAL titles] alive."
In Class AA, Ambridge has won the past two WPIAL titles and five of the past six. The Bridgers are heavily favored to continue their domination in the WPIAL with four-year starter and Penn State recruit Lee Smith leading the way. Smith, a 6-6 senior outside hitter, has been voted a PVCA Class AA All-Star three times.
"We did lose three starters to graduation, but we do have a talented group of kids back," Ambridge coach Glenn Freed said. "Our senior class has been contributing since they were freshmen."
Smith is one of four Ambridge returnees who were selected as All-WPIAL Class AA. Brandon Buck, a 6-5 outside hitter, and Aaron Mueller, a 5-9 setter, joined Smith on the first team. Dan Zajac, a 6-2 opposite/middle hitter, was voted to the second team.
"Our kids enjoy the challenge of being the team to beat," Freed said. "It makes them work even harder to stay on top."
Ambridge advanced to the PIAA title match last year before losing to Northeastern.
"We came so close to a state title last year," Freed said. "Northeastern was the better team that day."
Derry is ranked No. 2 in the WPIAL. The Trojans have five starters back, including three All-WPIAL players, 6-2 senior outside hitter Matt Vasinko, 5-10 senior libero Izaak Fulmer-Moffat and 6-4 senior outside hitter Ethan Huston.
WPIAL Class AAA
1. North Allegheny
2. Fox Chapel
4. Bethel Park
WPIAL Class AA
3. Beaver County Christian
5. O.L. Sacred Heart
Players To Watch
WPIAL Class AAA
Noah Bostick, North Hills, 6-3, Sr., OH
Brendan Brown, North Allegheny, 6-5, Sr., MH
Jake Dixon, Bethel Park, 6-3, Soph., OH
Michael Eisner, Fox Chapel, 6-2, Sr., RH
Mitch Higgins, North Allegheny, 6-3, Sr., OH
Matt Huey, Butler, 6-1, Sr., MH
Sam Kavel, Penn Trafford, 6-6, Sr., MH
Jaysen Zaleski, Fox Chapel, 6-2, Jr., MH
WPIAL Class AA
Brandon Buck, Ambridge, 6-5, Sr., OH
Izaak Fulmer-Moffat, Derry, 5-10, Sr., L
Jon Knab, Beaver County Christian, 6-3, Sr., OH
Shaughn McDonald, O.L.S.H., 6-1, Sr., OH
Lee Smith, Ambridge, 6-6, Sr., OH
Will Townsend, Beaver C.C., 6-0, Sr., OH
Matt Vasinko, Derry, 6-2, Sr., OH