There are years when the frontrunner in District 10 boys volleyball is a given.
Then there are years when someone — maybe unexpecting — steps up early on in the campaign to give the opposition a little something to ponder. This is one of those years. And Maplewood is that team to ponder.
With the start of the Region 1 boys volleyball season set to begin, the Tigers have so far set themselves apart from the rest of the contingent — this after finishing just 5-10 overall and 3-5 in the region a year ago without a single player listed above 6-foot-1.
The Tigers finished the non-region portion of their 2012 dual match schedule at 3-0 following a 25-8, 25-21, 25-12 win over Cambridge Springs on Tuesday.
In tournament play, the Tigers have been up and down, but they have faced some stiff competition along the way. At the Maplewood Invitational on March 31, the Tigers finished second, falling 25-17, 26-24 to Ambridge — currently ranked No. 1 in the state in Class AA by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association — in the finals.
Maplewood was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Meadville Invitational on April 14 by Altoona — a Class AAA squad.
“That’s just an excellent team,” Cochranton coach Brad Custead said of the Tigers. “I think most of them are seniors, so they’ve been playing together since ninth grade I’m sure. They are a solid team and they are going to be a team to reckon with.”
Of the three returning District 10 PVCA all-state players, none hail from Maplewood. For the Tigers, so far, it has been all about teamwork and understanding two of the most important facets of the game: Defense and passing.
“We are far from being the best team we can be right now,” Maplewood coach Sheila Bancroft said. “We have a lot of work to do.
“Offensively, I don’t think we’re where we need to be. But it makes me smile every time I walk into the gym. They are such great kids and I tell that to everyone. … You walk into the gym and you are happy to be there.
“No one is asking about stats. They don’t care. No one cares about who’s getting the ball. They want to win. They are all about winning.”
And so far, they are doing a pretty good job of that.
Time will tell
Maplewood enters Region 1 play with the top overall record of the 10 participating teams and the best standing of the District 10 clubs in the PVCA Top 10 Class AA poll at No. 5.
But it’s District 10 boys volleyball. And often times the team everyone picks at the start of the season as their favorite isn’t the one making the noise at the end of the season.
This year that may ring truer than ever with a couple teams just now introducing key players back into their lineups who missed the first part of the season with injuries.
Saegertown senior outside hitter Justin Griffith and 2011 PVCA All-State outside/middle hitter Josh Oertly, of Cochranton, have both been cleared to play.
Griffith suffered a broken ankle during winter Junior Olympics, while Oertly injured his hand during basketball season.
Both Saegertown head coach Justin Johnson and Custead aren’t sure when their respective players will return full-time to their lineups. Oertly was just cleared on Tuesday. Griffith was cleared last week, but he is slowly being eased back in.
Johnson said he did not know how much Griffith would play in the Panthers’ Region 1 opener against Meadville tonight.
“I think it’s still going to take a couple of weeks for both players to really get back into it,” Johnson said. “I’m sure both teams will have to make some switches and it’s going to take some time for everything to come together. Both players are a bit behind. They haven’t played.”
Meadville is without talented senior Travis Jensen due to an injured knee but, he is expected to return in a few weeks.
Several teams in the district are also just young. And it is unknown how far those teams and those players will evolve through the course of the regular season. It could be anyone’s guess who is left to hoist the District 10 boys volleyball championship trophy on May 25.
The journey there begins today.
The opening day schedule is as follows: Farrell at Cambridge Springs; Conneaut Valley at Cochranton; Maplewood at Rocky Grove; Saegertown at Meadville; and Fort LeBoeuf at McDowell.
The Meadville versus Saegertown match features a matchup of state-ranked squads. Meadville is ranked No. 6 and Saegertown is No. 10.
The Panthers won an epic battle to kick off the 2012 season back on March 27 in a non-region tilt. The scores were 25-22, 17-25, 25-23, 30-28.
The tilt is also a rematch of last year’s District 10 championship match. Meadville is the 2010 Class AA state runner-up. Saegertown is the 2011 Class AA state runner-up.
The boys volleyball season is still young and there will be plenty of opportunities for players throughout District 10 to make their case for The Meadville Tribune’s annual player of the year laurels.
So far, though, there is one player who has stood above all the rest: Maplewood senior libero Austin Acel.
“Austin Acel right now at this point in the season — and it’s early — is playing some really good volleyball,” Bancroft said. “The thing is, his passing is great, his defense is great, but he’s also the quarterback of the team. He calls everything out. He sees everything and that is huge out there.
“I’ve had Austin in the gym since he was in third grade. He’s been around the game a lot and he excels at it. He excels at everything. He’s a very talented kid. But volleyball is his sport.”
Meadville’s Tyler and Alex Minnis also have had superb seasons thus far. Alex Minnis is a returning PVCA Class AA all-state libero. Cochranton’s Michael Shirey, Conneaut Valley’s Nolan Varee — also a 2011 PVCA Class AA all-state pick — and Saegertown’s Shane Rigby have also been solid.
There are years when the frontrunner in District 10 boys volleyball is a given.
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