Longtime head coach Shawn Spencer was excited to see the future of his Derry Area boys’ volleyball team.
The current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic prevented Spencer from witnessing that future for the Trojans, led by the seniors and upperclassmen, at least for the time being. No action was taken during Monday’s PIAA Board of Directors meeting regarding the start of spring sports or the possible re-start of the winter championships.
“(The current seniors) didn’t have a lot of in-game varsity experience because of the sheer number of seniors we had last year,” Spencer said. “But those were the same kids that stepped it up and were competing against those kids last year in practice.
“This was going to be their year to shine and show what they could do, and I think they were embracing that opportunity. It was going to be a successful year again.”
Derry Area reached the quarterfinals of the PIAA Class 2A Boys’ Volleyball State Tournament last season. The Trojans have qualified for the state playoffs each of the last three years and nine times in the last 11 seasons.
“The year-to-year success we have allows the younger kids to become engaged in the sport,” Spencer said. “They work extremely hard to keep the tradition going and this year was no different.
“The kids put in a lot of time, whether it’s open gyms or in the weight room.”
Last season, Derry Area continued its run of reaching the WPIAL playoffs every year since at least 1998. The Trojans won their 19th section championship in school history —without losing a set in section play — and earned a top-four seed in the classification for the 11th straight year.
Derry Area finished as the top seed in the WPIAL Class 2A playoffs for the second straight year and the third time in five seasons. But Ambridge Area defeated Derry Area for the seventh time in 10 seasons in the WPIAL Class 2A playoffs (five times in the championship match) and the ninth time in postseason play during the last decade, including the state tournament in 2014 and ’13.
The Trojans emphatically rebounded with an impressive win against No. 3-seeded Our Lady Sacred Heard in the WPIAL Class 2A consolation match to qualify for the state playoffs again. Derry Area defeated West Shamokin, a team which featured Spencer’s son Eric, in the opening round of the state tournament before falling to Meadville Area, the eventual Class 2A state champion.
Spencer was anxious to see this year’s team continue the trend.
“I think this year, moreso than years past, there were a lot of openings for kids to step up and step into new roles,” Spencer said. “From what I saw in practice, it looked like there were a lot of kids vying to take those roles.
“They were all working extremely hard and doing some really good things that was going to create some tough decisions for me.”
The Trojans lost seven starters from last year’s team because of graduation, including Dom DeLuca, John Kerr, Alex Murphy, Colton Nemcheck, Jason Geary, Hunter Hebenthal and Nathaniel Marinchek.
“I don’t think a lot of people would’ve expected a lot out of us this year, since we lost pretty much every starter,” Spencer said. “But I think we were in a good position to surprise a lot of people. They didn’t get to see the kids who were in waiting. They’re some good players and I think they would’ve gotten a chance to shine this year and make a little noise.”
Derry Area seniors this season included Lucas Ciocco, Max Malis, Emmett Anderson, Seth Loughner, Anthony Ditonto and Trent Johnston. The Trojans also featured five juniors, Hunter Wack, Dakota Beeman, Tristan Seger, Michael Shumaker and Grant Hudson, in addition to sophomores Matt Rhoades and Nick Allison.
“This year we were going to have to win a different way than we have the previous two years,” Spencer said. “But the previous kids were really buying into it and this team looked like it was going to have success this year.”
Spencer said the Trojans held open gyms and several of his players participated in club-level volleyball during the offseason.
“The majority of the kids who played last year all improved based on what I saw from this year,” Spencer said. “It was going to be real exciting to see them improve during the season. It was a good group of kids we had and a lot of excitement for me personally. We lost a lot of seniors, but we were sort of going into a new realm and I was having a lot of fun and enjoying my time with the guys.”
Spencer added that his players were excited to get the season rolling as they brought fun, enthusiasm and day-to-day improvement to practice. It makes the current situation, while understandable in the grand scheme of things, still frustrating to Spencer, who was anxious to begin the season.
“I was really looking forward to working with these guys,” Spencer said. “In the short amount of time I got to work with them, they were a real fun group and I think they were going to do alright.”
Spencer didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, or leave a particular message to his team or seniors. The Trojans left practice on Thursday, March 12, and Derry Area had an in-service the following day when Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf closed all state schools.
“I don’t know what I would’ve said to be honest,” Spencer said. “I just know through communication with a lot of them that they’re disappointed that they can’t get this opportunity. I keep my fingers crossed that they’ll come up with some kind of a shorter season. I just hope for the best and that’s all we can do.”