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Hampton volleyball expects to have another strong season despite loss of six seniors

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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Senior Maddie Ware is a returning starter for the Hampton girls volleyball team.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Junior Nikita Corbelli takes over at setter for the Hampton girls volleyball team.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Junior Anastasia Russ is an important front-row player for Hampton girls volleyball.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Hampton's volleyball team competes during a tournament Saturday, Sept. 2 , 2017, at Franklin Regional.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Hampton's Quinn Laffin and Natalie Rydzak go for a block during a tournament Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, at Franklin Regional.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Hampton's Melinda Maers dives for a ball during a tournament Saturday, Sept. 2 , 2017, at Franklin Regional.

Senior outside hitter Kira Diehm was reflecting on her earlier days with the Hampton volleyball team. There was a time before the WPIAL championship and state playoff berths in 2016 when the outlook wasn’t as rosy. But, in some respects, that didn’t matter.

“I remember the seniors when I was a freshman,” she said. “We didn’t win much, but they were still leading and showing a great example. Previous years, it’s always been about coming back from never really winning. Coming into the game as underdogs and people don’t really take us too seriously. We proved people wrong last year. It was really great we were able to step up and make a difference in the program.”

It’s going to take the same amount of leadership and maybe a bit more skill to overcome the graduation of six seniors from a team that surprised everyone last fall with its WPIAL title run that ended with a loss in the final to West Allegheny. But coach Matt Robertson sees this as a new beginning rather than a continuation of last season.

“We can’t compare ourselves to last year’s team,” said Robertson, in his fifth year as coach. “It’s a different team with different skill sets. Last year, we had a lot of height in the middle, and we still have that with Anastasia. But we have a lot of skilled hitters from the outside.”

Anyone in the local volleyball circles knows Anastasia Russ by first name. The 6-foot-4 junior burst onto the scene last year and was a major cog in the Hampton volleyball wheel.

But that wheel has many parts, and for Russ, graduated setter and three-year starter Mia Ringeisen was important not only as a leader on the court, but also in setting up kills for the Division I prospect. Now, junior Nikita Corbelli steps into what could be the most important shoes to fill if the Talbots want to challenge for the WPIAL title again.

“I honestly think Nikita could have been setting somewhere for a varsity team if it weren’t for Mia,” Robertson said. “She has a high volleyball IQ and works hard every practice.”

Seniors Diehm and Maddie Ware are the other two returning starters for a team that emphasizes vocal leadership and camaraderie. Diehm has stepped up not only in the leadership department but also on the court.

“She’s definitely progressed a ton from last year,” Robertson said. “Her skills, both hitting and passing, are so much better than they were last year. I think the girls on the team look up to her. She sets up everything outside of volleyball and stuff, and I think the girls buy into what she has to say.”

Ware, who has also stepped into a leadership role, will be another outside hitter.

“Maddie anticipates things that I don’t even see half the time,” Robertson said. “She’s got such great ball control playing opposite of Kira this year.”

Senior Natalie Rydzak steps in as middle blocker, and while the defensive unit isn’t flush with varsity experience, there’s plenty of talent and depth. Seniors Hannah Tronetti and Mariah Cohen are solid defenders, and junior Melinda Maers is a gifted athlete.

“I like the way that we play,” Robertson said. “Teams are going to look at us as a group that lost a lot of experience. But people forget those juniors that are now seniors were playing (in practice) last year against one of the best teams in the WPIAL. It might take a little time to get over the experience factor, but in the end I think we’ll make a good run.”

The path won’t be easier this year as Hampton’s section is one of the best in the area. Competing teams Knoch and Central Valley are ranked at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in WPIAL Class 3A, and Hampton is No. 5.

Regardless of expectations or results, this group of seniors plans to pass down their best to the next group.

“Mia was such a great part of our team,” said Diehm. “But it’s easy to remember what she would have said or done in this situation. … Anastasia, she’s still young. She needs to look up to somebody even if I’m not at her skill level. It’s not about your skill level. It’s about being a team.

“Team dinners, fundraisers, it’s about getting to know each other because on the court it’s all of us. That’s how we did so well last year. We were such a close team.”

Devon Moore is a freelance writer.

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