Fifty-eight volleyball players representing 15 Western Pennsylvania school districts will be competing for the Pittsburgh Volleyball Club at the 34th annual United States Boys' Junior National Volleyball Championships, which will begin today and continue through July 4 at the Reno Convention Center in Reno, Nev.
"This is the fourth year for our club and the fourth year we will have teams competing at the national championships," said North Allegheny coach Dan Schall, who serves as volleyball director for the club. "We sent six teams the first year, seven teams each of the past two years, and six teams this year."
The Junior National Championships feature the top teams in the country in seven age groups: 18-and-under, 17-and-under, 16-and-under, 15-and-under, 14-and-under, 13-and-under and 12-and-under.
"All seven age brackets have a club division in which any team may participate," Schall said. "In the 18, 17, 16, 15 and 14 age brackets, they also have an Open Division. The Open Division is much tougher and all teams must qualify. The best teams in the country are in the Open brackets."
The Pittsburgh Volleyball Club has six teams entered in five age brackets.
"We had one team qualify for the Open Division," Schall said. "Our 18-and-under team is one of 36 teams in the Open bracket. They earned their bid during the winter season. Our other teams are in the Club bracket in their [age groups]."
The PVC also has two teams entered in the 17-and-under division, two teams in the 16-and-under division and one team in the 14-and-under division.
Nine of the 20 players recognized as first-team WPIAL all-stars are playing for the Pittsburgh Volleyball Club. Seven were Class AAA all-stars, while the other two were Class AA stars.
The PVC's team entered in the Open Division features six first-team WPIAL All-Stars, including four from PIAA Class AAA champion North Allegheny: outside hitter Tommy Keisling, setter Joe Murphy, libero Suyash Fulay and opposite Justin Zweig.
The other two are Bethel Park opposite Grant Underwood and Fox Chapel libero Josh Tublin. All six are recent graduates.
Dan Long, an assistant at North Allegheny, is head coach of the 18-under team. Derry Area coach Shawn Spencer and Pete Madia, another assistant at North Allegheny, are the assistant coaches.
"It's an awesome experience for the kids to play against the top players in the United States," said Spencer, who has been a PVC coach since the club was started in 2010. "It's a long tournament that tests not only your physical ability, but also your mental ability."
Spencer has two Derry players on one of the 17-and-under teams, outside hitter Matt Vasinko and libero Izaak Fulmer-Moffat.
Vasinko was a first-team selection on the WPIAL Class AA all-star team, along with Our Lady of the Sacred Heart outside hitter Shaughn McDonald. North Allegheny middle hitter Brendan Brown, a first-team Class AAA all-star, is also on that team, which consists of players who recently completed their junior year. Pine-Richland's Dave Neely is the head coach.
"It's nice to have my own players involved," Spencer said. "But what's more important is growing volleyball in the area. The big scheme of this club is to keep promoting the game of boys volleyball."
The PVC has conducted three practices a week since the high school season ended to prepare for the national tournaments. All practices have been at the Monroeville Sports Complex.
"Each club member pays a fee that depends on whether they participate during the winter," said Madia, who serves as club director. "The fee covers uniforms, rental for training facilities, a fee for the coaches and hotel expenses. Each player and any parents must pay for their transportation costs and meals during the trip."
Madia handles the administrative aspect of the group.
"Pete is the brains of the group," Schall said. "He does a lot of different thing for the club."
"Dan handles the volleyball side of it, while I handle the business end of it," Madia said. "He's more in communication with the coaches planning practices and picking the teams."
The PVC has had two teams earn top 10 finishes at the national tournament. In 2010, they fielded a team in the 18-and-under division that placed fourth in the Open Division. Last year, they had a team place fifth in the 18-and-under division in the club bracket.
Underwood is one of three Bethel Park players heading to Reno. The other two, outside hitter Jake Dixon and setter Brandon Thorsen, are on one of the 16-and-under teams. Both were freshmen during the 2013 season.
"It's a fun time for the kids," said Bethel Park coach Tom Allman, who has coached club ball in the past. "It's good exposure for the kids because every college has a coach or two scouting the talent."
Fox Chapel's Phil O'Keeffe is head coach of one of the 16-and-under teams.
"I have seven of my Fox Chapel kids participating, including four on my team," O'Keeffe said. "Most of my kids went to nationals last year. In fact, most of them started playing on our 14-and-under team.
"Anytime you get kids playing during the offseason is a positive. You can't beat the experience you get from playing top competition from around the country."
Montour has two players on one of the 16-and-under teams, outside hitter Matt Cain and opposite Zach Renninger. Both were juniors during the 2013 season.
"I played club ball when I was in high school," Montour coach and alumnus Brendon Aleski said. "It's a great experience for the kids to play against the best competition in the country."
Each team will play at least three matches per day for three days. An elimination round will take place for the top teams on the fourth day.