Ken Wunderley talked with North Allegheny setter Joe Murphy after the Tigers won the PIAA Class AAA Boys Volleyball title. Below is his story.
(Photo: North Allegheny's Joe Murphy (No. 19) sets up teammate Brendan Brown for a shot during the PIAA Class AAA championship match against Pennsbury. Photo by J.J. LaBella/Tri-State Sports & News Service)
North Allegheny setter Joe Murphy can sympathize with former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass.
That's because Murphy has walked in his shoes, so to speak. But this story has a much happier ending than Blass' baseball-playing career.
Murphy was voted third-team All-WPIAL Class AAA as a sophomore at North Allegheny, and was on his way to a first-team selection as a junior, but something weird happened to him near the end of the season.
Inexplicably, Murphy began double-hitting on many of his sets -- a definite no-no in volleyball, awarding an automatic point to the opponent -- which led to his playing time being significantly cut during the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs.
"For whatever reason, Joe was unable to do what he had naturally done since he began playing," North Allegheny coach Dan Schall said. "He really hit a wall [with his setting].
"It began near the end of the season, after the State College tournament. We had a match with Norwin and Joe got called for five double-contacts in one game. I don't think he had been called for five double-contacts in his entire career."
That began a painful end to his junior season. Schall switched to a two-setter offense and gave most of the playing time in the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs to two of Murphy's teammates. North Allegheny overcame the distraction to claim another WPIAL title, but the Tigers were upset in the first round of the PIAA Class AAA tournament by Lower Dauphin, a team that finished fourth in its district.
"It's like a pitcher having 'Steve Blass disease' and not being able to throw a strike," said Murphy, describing his painful experience, relating to Blass' final season with the Pirates. "It's something you do every day. You step on the court and your hands just don't work.
"It was so terrible. I went in before school to practice, and try to tell myself it was something with my mechanics. But it was sports anxiety. I had performance anxiety. It's like a singer who goes out and can't sing well when they're in front of people. That's all it was."
Fortunately, Murphy's story has a much different ending than Blass, who was forced to retire when he couldn't find a cure for his control problems. Murphy triumphantly returned this season to lead North Allegheny to WPIAL and PIAA titles, with the later concluding Saturday at Penn State University's Multi-Sport Facility.
"I was extremely lucky to have a lot of very supportive people, especially my family," said Murphy, who shed a few tears of joy after accepting his gold medal and having a chance to hold the Tigers' championship trophy.
"I'm extremely lucky to have a team that believed in me and let me come back this year and be part of this special season. I'm so excited and humbled to be part of this [North Allegheny] family."
Learning to relax played a big part in his recovery.
"I learned some strategies to relax," Murphy said. "I had to learn that this game is not the most important thing that will happen in [my] life. It's just a moment in time."
Murphy also received advice from former Derry Area coach Rich Schall, his coach's father.
"Before the WPIAL final last year, coach Schall's dad came up to me and said 'You don't have to do everything alone. Just smile and play.' That was the best advice I have ever been given. That really helped me."
Murphy recorded 14 blocks, 30 digs, 14 kills and 135 assists in North Allegheny's four PIAA matches.
"It's an unbelievable story of resilience," Dan Schall said. "Joe showed tremendous courage in battling back this season. His story should be an inspiration to others who might face the same situation. He's proof that an athlete can overcome adversity."
Murphy was not the only Tigers player who overcame adversity this year. Right-side hitter Justin Zweig missed the 2012 season, his junior year, with a broken leg. Zweig returned this season to give the Tigers a strong presence on the right side.
"This is like the 'Dream Team,'" said Zweig, who recorded 14 kills and 61/2 blocks in Saturday's title match against Pennsbury. "I've been dreaming of this moment since my sophomore year. Winning this title means even more to me, since I had to sit out last year."
Zweig recorded 30 kills and 221/2 blocks in North Allegheny's four PIAA matches.
Tommy Keisling led North Allegheny with 62 kills in the PIAA tournament, including 21 in the championship match.
"We used last year's loss in the first round as a motivator," said Keisling, who was voted the WPIAL Class AAA most valuable player. "From the day after our loss in the first round, we've had the goal of winning WPIAL and PIAA titles this year. It's an amazing feeling to reach that final goal of winning a state title."
Murphy will be attending the University of Virginia next year, but the school does not have a men's varsity program.
"I will be playing club ball," said Murphy, who plans to major in chemistry and pre-med. "I can't give up the sport I love so much."