For most of Shawn Spencer’s tenure as head coach of the Derry Area boys volleyball team, the Trojans have been a top contender for the WPIAL crown.
To that point, Derry Area finished third in the WPIAL Class 2A tournament in 2019, and advanced to the quarterfinals of the PIAA playoffs. Spencer believed that could’ve been replicated in 2020, as well, as he saw an underrated collection of seniors ready to lead the program for another deep postseason run.
That group never received the opportunity, however, as the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic wiped away the entire campaign.
Now, the Trojans will look to develop a whole new cast of players at the varsity level, with the goal of maintaining the tradition of excellence previous teams have established.
To achieve that, the Trojans will need to make significant strides throughout the course of the season, but it’s a challenge to which they are looking forward.
“My main goal is that it’s not where we start at, it’s where we finish,” Spencer said. “With what I’ve seen early on, it’s going to be a process, but I do see good light at the end of the tunnel.”
Derry Area is attempting to fill the void left by the graduation of six key players. The Class of 2020 sextet included Seth Loughner, Anthony Ditonto, Max Malis, Emmert Anderson, Lucas Ciocco, and Trent Johnston, all of whom would’ve started in 2020. From that group, Ditonto has become a fixture in the lineup for St. Vincent College volleyball, while Malis joined the football program at Mercyhurst University.
“Certainly, we had a good core of seniors that have waited for their time, and I think they were going to surprise some people,” Spencer noted.
This season, the Trojans will once again lean heavily upon a group of six seniors, although their game experience is mostly limited to junior varsity action. Those players include Hunter Wack, Dakota Beeman, Tristan Seger, Michael Shumaker, Grant Hudson, and Dacoda Hafer.
“I’m not set on anything position wise, but all of the guys who played JV for a couple of years, I expect them to play integral parts in what we do as a team this year,” said Spencer.
A pair of juniors, Nick Allison and Matt Rhoades, should also contribute regularly. Other players on the roster include Connor Johnston, Zander Lehosky, Morgan Sobota, Cameron Smail, Patrick Laughlin, Cody Tabita, Elijah Wigand, Kyle Young, Maddox Bush, Johnathan Shumaker, and Zach Pannichelle.
While the team is light on experience, the players have shown a willingness to learn and improve — both physically and mentally. They’ve also shown a level of perspective that perhaps has been a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think last year being taken away was a little bit of a reality check, as far as sometimes you take things for granted,” Spencer said.
“I’m very excited, because I got it taken away from me last year, and it’s something I love doing. I’m pretty rejuvenated to put everything I have into this year for them.”
The Trojans will compete in Class 2A Section 2, along with Deer Lakes, Gateway, Mars Area, and Plum. Summit Academy was initially scheduled to round out the section, but has opted out of the season.
Spencer pointed to Deer Lakes as a perennial contender, despite the Lancers posting a 5-7 record in 2019.
“I know they had some talented kids when we last played,” he said of the Lancers. “I would expect them probably to be the favorite in the section.”
The Fightin’ Planets and Gators both missed the playoffs two years ago, finishing with marks of 4-8 and 3-9, respectively. Furthermore, Plum previously competed in Class 3A, and sputtered to a record of 2-10 in 2019.
“I’m sure just about every team is in the same situation we’re in. It’s going to be a process for everybody to get better and keep improving,” Spencer added.
While the playoff format remains unclear, typically four teams from each section advance to the WPIAL postseason. Regardless, Spencer and his team have maintained the same goals as their predecessors.
“Our first goal is to make the playoffs. Our second goal is to compete for the section title and win it. And then our third goal is to make a run in the WPIAL,” he detailed. “Those goals won’t change – they may have to be adjusted during the season. I think the kids every year embrace that, and they set up to try to do that, so I don’t see any difference this year.”
Derry Area was originally slated to play a pair of non-section matches, but those were postponed because of COVID protocol. As a result, the Trojans first action of the season will take place in the section opener on April 6 at Deer Lakes. That presents a less than ideal scenario for Derry Area, but one that epitomizes the uncertainty the team has learned to deal with over the past year.
“Right now, it’s not an ideal world, that’s for sure,” Spencer stated. “We’re going to do what we can. That’s all you can do.”