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In a move some say is taking the ECIC out of the dark ages, girls volleyball matches this season will change from a best 2-of-3 format to best 3-of-5.

"We have been battling to get this for years," said Section VI co-chairperson Pat Wilson of Eden. "The sectionals are best 3-out-of-5, the regionals are best 3-out-of-5, and if you make states, it's best 3-out-of-5. Our argument was the ECIC was not preparing the kids to go beyond their division."

The ECIC, with 28 teams, was the only league in Western New York which did not play best 3-of-5. The conference now joins the Niagara Frontier League, Niagara-Orleans, Msgr. Martin Association, and Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties as 3-of-5 leagues.

Besides preparing players beyond league play, Wilson said the change will give coaches the luxury of playing more players. "You can afford to get them in, and maybe even lose a game, knowing you can come back," she said. "No coach that I've talked to has been against this."

Opponents argued against longer matches by claiming they were taking gym time away from other sports and requiring extra expenses for officials. Countering that were coaches who welcomed the extra strategy involved along with the player development possibilities.

"It's huge. It's awesome," said Clarence coach Robin Bock-Shifflet. "It will allow us to carry some younger players with a lot of athletic ability and potential and find them playing time, and spend some time developing them."

ECIC volleyball, along with field hockey, basketball and swimming, began on the interscholastic level in 1971-1972. Since its inception, ECIC volleyball matches were best 2-of-3.

Wilson said to expect more rule changes in the girls game. This year at the NCAA Division I level, teams are experimenting with the rally-score-to-25 format (first team scoring 25 points wins).

Volleyball at the college level is also going to recognize a back row specialist, allowing for substitution of certain players every time they rotate to the back row. In most cases the specialist role will be filled by a shorter player who has limited effectiveness at the net.

"They're realizing that not all the great players are 6-feet tall. They're providing a place for the smaller player," said Wilson. "It's just a matter of time before these changes filter down to the high school level."

The 1999 volleyball season started with non-league matches Sept. 1. Here's a look at some of the top players on some of the top teams:

Hail, North Tonawanda

The Lady Jacks look to continue their impressive string of victories which includes back-to-back Class A state titles, two Section VI titles and a 42-0 record the past three seasons in the Niagara Frontier League.

North Tonawanda returns five starters from last year's 24-0 team: seniors Lindsay Matikosh, Breean Trapasso, Brandi Trapasso and Katie Sarkovics, and junior Jen Smith.

"The five starters are experienced and with our sixth player (Andrea Witkowski), I feel as strong as in the past," said Lady Jacks coach Terry Brosius. "Britni Trapasso (1999 graduate) and the other four have been playing together since 5th grade."

On the defensive

While North Tonawanda won the sectional crown in Class A, Alden took honors in Class B, City Honors in Class C and Cattaraugus in Class D.

For City Honors, All-High player Jessica Weiner returns along with second teamer Katie Henry. The Centaurs are playing for their 15th consecutive Buffalo Public Schools crown.

Alden starts all seniors, led by setter Melissa Stoos and middle hitter Liz Geist, a pair of ECIC IV all-stars.

Cattaraugus returns four starters: Mandy Agnew, Lindsey Bradley, Shannon Eichenseer and Melinda Eyring. The Big Red finished 22-3 last season, losing in the state final to Haldane (Section I).

Best of the rest

Clarence, with five starters back, will find out early how it measures up in its first four matches: North Tonawanda, Frontier, Sweet Home and Lancaster. . . . Frontier's 15 players are all juniors and seniors, led by returning starters Andrea Smith, Sarah Ballard, Andrianne Robinson and Christine Stoklosa. . . . If Sweet Home is to continue its winning ways, it will do so with no seniors on its roster. One of the many talented juniors is outside hitter Melanie Wilson, an ECIC II all-star. . . . Eden is a young, yet experienced team with junior OH Diana Wierba, junior setter Renee Kam and senior OH Erin Martin. . . . Lancaster should be in the thick of the ECIC I race with all-star Molly Schrantz and second teamer Kristen Scheffold back. . . . Ellicottville, a front-runner for the Class D title, returns four starters, including five-year player Jessica McAndrew and four-year players Amanda Kahm and Shannon Hoerner. The Eagles hope to land in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. "We've steadily gotten better," said coach Bob Sawicki. "All the girls are experienced." . . . April Batt, a former player at Houghton College, is the new coach at West Valley.

Close battle in Msgr. Martin

The chase for the Msgr. Martin Association title is expected to be a four-way race involving Sacred Heart, St. Mary's of Lancaster, Nardin and Mt. Mercy.

St. Mary's lost last year's playoff title to Sacred Heart, but finished undefeated in the league for the seventh consecutive year. The Lancers haven't lost a match in the MMA since 1991. This year's team is young, led by the nucleus of senior Jamie Wierzba (All Catholic), sophomore Traci Pieczynski and junior Mary Helak.

Sacred Heart graduated the Fanning sisters, Sandy and Susan (both at Providence), but the Sharks do return Barb Cristiano, a second-team All-Catholic player.

Nardin is an experienced team led by All-Catholic senior Laura Zielinski and Meghan Leary.

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