When we last left Hempfield’s boys volleyball team, the Black Knights were collecting their silver medals up at Penn State last spring, after falling to powerful, undefeated North Allegheny 3-0 in the PIAA Class 3A state finals.
A few weeks later, coach Mike Vogel’s program saw multiple all-star and all-state players pick up their diplomas on graduation night, leaving some serious holes to fill for this season’s squad.
Hempfield, a 10-time state champ, and the reigning section, league and District Three winner, has retooled in the past, of course. Vogel has another reloading job on his hands this spring. But the Knights are off to an encouraging start. After a Final Four appearance in their tough-as-nails Joust Tournament last weekend, Hempfield got off to a 1-0 start in L-L Section One play on Tuesday.
Elliot De La Torre — the loan returning front-row heavy hitter from last year’s club — had 12 kills and a block, Hudson Smiley dished off 13 assists, and Owen Hanzelman had three aces and nine digs in the Knights’ 3-0 victory over rival Manheim Township in Neffsville.
Game scores were 25-10, 25-13 and 25-21, as the Blue Streaks made the Knights earn it in the final set, taking a 19-18 lead to make things mighty interesting. But Ian Crabtree had a perfectly placed drop shot, and Ryan Givens’ spike gave Hempfield a 22-19 lead on the way to the victory.
“New team, same plan,” said De La Torre, a Stevenson University recruit. “We want to go back and do what we did with that group last year, and I think we can. We have a lot of good tools here. We have a lot of talented guys. I have all the confidence in them.”
So does Vogel, who knows that there’s a long way to go.
“Basically what I’m looking for are dragon slayers,” the Knights’ skipper said. “It takes a while, and you can do all the technical stuff and hit and block. But you have to be able to do that under pressure. So I have to find seven or so dragon slayers to go out there. We’ll find ourselves. We’re not 100 percent there, but it’s March.”
Hempfield cruised to leads of 5-0 and 10-1 in the first game Tuesday, as Ben Crabtree had a pair of service winners, De La Torre had three kills and Hanzelman added a spike during the early flurry. Later, De La Torre had two more kills, and Colsen Hunt closed out the first game with a dead-eye drop shot.
In the second game, Township closed to within 11-7 on Zach Johnson’s spike, but that only served as a wakeup call for the Knights, who punched back with a devastating 10-0 blitz. Givens keyed the spree with three spikes in a row, the latter giving Hempfield a 19-7 cushion.
De La Torre, who called Tuesday’s win a confidence-builder, and Adam Brossman closed out the set with spikes and Hempfield was up 2-0. But the Streaks didn’t go away, and got winners from Xavier Cedeno-Bravo, Tyler Vicidomini (8 kills, 4 digs) and Quinn McCarty for a 19-18 lead in the third before Hempfield rallied and won it.
“I felt really good that the boys kept improving as the night went on,” Township coach Jack Damiano said. “It took us a little while to get acclimated and adjusted to what they were doing, but we got there by the third set. We learned.”
Hempfield’s victory set up Thursday’s key section match at Penn Manor, which blanked Conestoga Valley 3-0 on Tuesday. The Knights also have a key match next Thursday at Warwick.
Penn Manor was the runner-up in the Knights’ Joust tourney last Saturday — falling to York Suburban, which KO’d Hempfield in the semifinals — and Warwick reached the Sweet 16 of North Allegheny’s powerhouse tourney last weekend, before falling to Manheim Central, which lost to the Knights in last year’s L-L finale.