Slowly, but steadily, the Penns Valley girls’ volleyball team has been on the rise.
Begun as a varsity program just eight years ago, the team has met new benchmarks each season, and the Lady Rams have been enjoying the progress.
They are one of several Centre County teams expecting more success this fall as the season is about to begin.
State College and Philipsburg-Osceola are defending District 6 titles in classes AAA and AA, respectively, and despite some major losses from last season they each have high hopes again.
At the other end is St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy, which is fielding a varsity team for the first time and preparing for the challenges.
Penns Valley (11-8) is coming off a successful season with its first district playoff win in program history, beating Central in four sets. It was the second straight season that produced a team qualifying for the district bracket.
However, graduation took many of last year’s starters.
Now Penns Valley has a youth movement with more than half the roster made of freshmen — 10 total.
“We have a young team this season,” second-year coach Sei Hee Hwang said, “but with so much athleticism coming from the new girls, the coaches are excited to see how the team will do.”
The team also is getting more experienced, with Kayla Bracken, Bethany Miller and Olivia Meyer all playing club volleyball in the offseason to prepare for this fall.
“We’re excited to see their improvements,” Hwang said, “and how they can bring their experience and knowledge onto the new group of girls.”
Philipsburg-Osceola (30-6) will see quite a few changes on the court this fall after last year’s strong showing. It was P-O’s fifth district title match appearance in the last six seasons, with three titles in that span.
The Lady Mounties do bring back setter McKenzie Burge, Mountain League Player of the Year, but they suffered a big loss with outside hitter Abby Showers, who will miss the season with an injury. It leaves them without a returning front-row hitter.
“It is comforting to know that we will have the leadership of McKenzie Burge and Liz Robertson on the court,” coach Dave Eckberg said. “We suffered a huge setback with an injury to Abby Showers, but will be relying on a variety of players to fill that void. We lost every starting hitter from last year and two of the passers that handled much of the serve receive responsibility. Despite the challenges, we remain optimistic about the upcoming season.”
State College (17-2) has high expectations once again, but will have to replace two of their top players from last season. Gone to graduation are last year’s starting outside hitters Taylor Leath, last year’s Gatorade State Player of the Year who is now at No. 20 North Carolina, and Christine Irwin, who is at Division III No. 14 Juniata.
The Lady Little Lions have won three straight district titles and two straight Mid-Penn crowns, and are returning five starters. Leading the returning pack is 6-foot-1 junior middle hitter Kyla Irwin, another of last year’s top players who is garnering a number of Division I basketball offers. Janae Moran is back at setter to lead those returning to the court this fall.
“Although you can never replace two former all-state players, we feel confident with this group of girls that we can be successful,” coach Chad Weight said. “There’s very good chemistry amongst this group, and our hope is that it carries us through the season. The girls look forward to the challenge of making it back to the state playoffs, and understand the work that needs to be done for that to happen.”
Bald Eagle Area (14-5) is coming off another strong campaign, although the season ended a little earlier than hoped, falling in the District 6 Class AA quarterfinals.
The Lady Eagles bring back most of their roster from a team that was the runner-up in the Mountain League last season and had the third seed for the District 6 Class AA tournament. Jess Bressler was a first-team Mountain League all-star and was second-team all-District 6.
“We return a lot of key pieces from last years team,” BEA coach Larry Campbell said. “If we handle the ball we should be solid this season. The amount of returning letterwinners from the last two years should provide solid leadership for the program this season”
Bellefonte (4-12) has a deep but inexperienced roster for its new coach. The roster has 16 girls who are new to the sport.
Christina Diaz takes over the Lady Red Raider program, giving the team its third head coach in the last four seasons and fourth in the last six.
“With five seniors on the team,” Diaz said, “we are looking for solid leadership and a competitive standard through the season.”
St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy begins its first season as a varsity program after three seasons playing against junior varsity teams. The Wolves were 4-3 last year as a JV team.
“Samantha Dawson, Mia McLaughlin, Mary Polak and Nicole Zimmerman took a leap of faith and began the volleyball program at SJCA,” coach Katie Wheeler said. “Through commitment, dedication and loyalty they have continued to develop the program and as athletes. They have become leaders on and off the court. I am excited to see what their senior year will hold; with the drive and determination of these exceptional young ladies, the possibilities are endless.”