2016 postseason champions: Canisius (Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association), Clarence (Section VI Division I), Eden (Section VI overall Division II), Hamburg (Section VI Division II-A).
2016 All-Western New York underclassmen: First team – Collin Rigley-11 (Eden). Second team – Drew Hesse-11 (Eden), Brandon Dunz-10 (Frontier), Jesse Donorovich-11 (Lockport), Jordan Nosal-11 (Maryvale).
Who's left? That's a good question, as several talents that had been fixtures on the scholastic scene graduated last June – including seven of the eight All-Western New York first team selections and half of the picks from the second team.
Among the big hitters to head to the college ranks include last year's Prep Talk Player of the Year Henry Payne (Clarence) to Penn State, West Seneca West's Ian Barker to Charleston and Canisius' Griffin Schmit to Harvard and Devin Joslyn to Loyola-Chicago.
"We certainly graduated a lot of talent but have some up and coming seniors-to-be and some outstanding younger players who will elevate the sport again to a very nice level," longtime Eden coach Robert Pierce said.
Those looking to contribute to the area's reputation for churning out future college players include Eden's high-flying Rigley and Hesse, Maryvale's Nosal, Clarence senior setter Shawn Trznadel and sophomore Teddy Payne, Starpoint 6-foot-8 senior Campbell Schoenfeld, Cheektowaga senior Ervin Harrell and Canisius seniors Matt Donnelly and Troy Gooch.
Schoenfeld has suitors from the East coast and Midwest, according to Pierce.
Chasing 18: Eighteen is a number Canisius players strive to reach but not because the digit secures voting rights for anyone who hits that age. Another Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association playoff championship at season's end would be the Crusaders' 18th straight title.
"Our guys are going to work really hard to continue the streak," said coach Tom Weislo. "That's the great thing about high school sports. Each team gets to carve out its own identity, which is cool."
Make no mistake, though. Those who suit up for the Crusaders, including nine returnees from last year, want to be remembered for being part of the streak, not for being on the team that saw the end of the championship run. Canisius, which graduated three All-WNY picks, has two returning starters: seniors Troy Gooch and Matt Donnelly. Gooch moves from libero to outside hitter as the returning first team All-Catholic has been named captain. Others who will see key minutes include Michael Antonucci at libero, outside hitter Alex Kurdziel and middle hitter Neil Cavanaugh. Brian Herrmann will do a lot of setting while 6-7 Safernio Dour is new to the game but has shown lots of promise.
"It's going to be an interesting year," Weislo said of the area volleyball scene. "I think it'll be very close depending on the level of play. Everyone is pretty close this year."
Catholic contenders: St. Joe's, last year's runner-up St. Francis and St. Mary's look to foil the Crusaders' quest of extending the streak.
St. Joe's returns five starters, including senior middle Keith Norward. He led the Marauders in blocks last year. He'll be joined by classmate and third-year starter Connor Wolbert, who finished second in kills and blocks. New to the team is junior Michael Mayer, who led St. Joe's junior varsity in kills and pass percentage. "He looks fantastic," coach Mark Anzalone said of Mayer.
Eden the hunted: The Raiders begin a season as a defending champion for the first time since 2011. They secured their 28th Section VI title by defeating Maryvale in the Division II-B final and then won the overall Division II crown by beating Division II-A champion Hamburg.
The goal is to return to the Far West Regional round with the purpose of trying to take it a step further than last year. Eden knows it won't be easy trying to get out of its own section to do that. Rigley and Hesse have the ability to play multiple positions for Pierce. Six-foot-2 Gavin Musielak should be among the top setters in the area. Others who should be vital to the offense include Josh Williams and Tome Filkov.
Looking to take flight: Maryvale returns five starters from its sectional runner-up team, led by Nosal, who has the skill and athleticism to be one of the top players in the area, according to coach Jon Bednasz. Others who will be key to the Flyers' offense include setter Nate Zawadzki, Zack Amato and Thomas Frain. Deante Mecca and Kyle Kosmack are solid defensive players at the net and in the back row.
Clarence encore? Clarence ended two droughts last year in winning the ECIC I and Section VI championships for the first time since 1999.
The quest to repeat figures to be challenging due to the graduation of Henry Payne, a multi-time first team All-WNY pick now at Penn State. That doesn't mean the Red Devils face an impossible mission as they still have some talent in the house. Veteran coach Kevin Starr's crew has a big-time returnee in senior Shawn Trznadel, who participated in a USA Volleyball A-2 camp in Colorado Springs over the summer. Payne's little brother, Teddy, enters his third year as a starter and is just a sophomore. He'll do a little of everything after serving as the team's libero the past two seasons.
And the Lions? Nearby Lockport, the Section VI Division I runner-up, could be in the mix again as the Lions feature several returnees. That includes senior outside hitters Sean Denniston and Marc Bixby. Others who look to help Lockport make a run at the Niagara Frontier League crown include Jesse Donorovich, Zach Schneider, Rhees Perry and Tivon White.
"I think all the competition this year will be pretty evenly matched," Lions coach Elizabeth Smorol said. "The goal is to go clean in the NFL and take it one match at a time for the playoffs."
New leader at OP: Ricky Albano takes over at Orchard Park for Matt Lexner, who had been coach since 2001. Lexner is now a volunteer assistant as he stepped down to devote time to coaching his daughter’s team.
Albano, who has spent the past four season as OP's junior varsity coach, inherits a team coming off a sectional semifinal appearance. Those expected to help a young Quakers squad play at a high level include seniors Matt Donohue and Ben Shoop. Josh McTigue will start at setter, while junior classmate Matt Burney will play the middle. Sophomores Nick Thomas and Ethan Swiatek look to contribute as outside hitters.
OP has an aggressive nonleague schedule that includes Eden, Maryvale, Lockport and Hamburg as well as matches against Section V champions Penfield (Class A) and Spencerport (Class B).
Around the courts: West Seneca West will be a tough draw led by highly skilled standouts Nick Pozutto and Nathan Petrik. Pozutto is a 6-1 junior, while Petrik is a 6-6 sophomore as the Indians' right side figures to have a nice mix of athleticism, speed and size with them there. Senior Peter Borzillieri, who took third in the long jump at the Section VI outdoor track and field championship last spring, enters his third season as a starter. Junior Mitchell Walczak is another returning starter.
Hamburg is always in the mix and figures to be again with 6-5 junior Jake Couzens leading the charge. The Bulldogs have won a sectional title seven times in the last 13 years, including three in the last four seasons.
Save the dates: The first big tournament of the season is Aug. 26 at Clarence. Others include: Eden's Can-Am Tournament (at NFCC), Sept. 9; Penfield Tournament, Oct. 7; Orchard Park Tournament, Oct. 14, Hamburg Tournament, Oct. 21.
Championship time: The Section VI Tournament begins Oct. 27. Sectional finals, Nov. 7 at Lackawanna and Nov. 8 at Orchard Park. Far West Regionals, Nov. 11 at TBA, state final four Nov. 18 at Suffolk County CC..
Who's going to be Prep Talk Player of the Year? The list of candidates is extremely long but includes Rigley, Hesse, Schoenfeld, Nosal, Donnelly and Gooch, and Lockport's Donorovich, Schneider and Denniston.