>Eden athletic and hungry
Eden might be the unofficial volleyball capital of Western New York, so it's a given that every Raider team is going to have skills.
But WNY opponents, brace yourself for this athletic, hungry version of the 11-time defending sectional champions.
"This team is one of the most athletic teams I've ever had," said Eden coach Stephen Pierce. "They're much quicker than last year's team. We don't have the big hitter or that dominant outside attack, but we're very balanced and very athletic. They really showed it [in winning the St. Mary's Tournament]."
The Raiders, who didn't drop a game during last weekend's first serve of the season, are led by senior Stacey Smith, who has several Division I offers on the table and even turned down a few -- American University, Colgate, New Hampshire and Fairfield have made offers while Indiana recently became interested.
Senior twins Hannah and Hailee Herc are back, along with Katie Eschner, and all three are Division I recruits. The athleticism is provided in a big way in the backcourt by two players coach Pierce knows well -- because they're both his nieces: sophomore Kendall Pierce and junior Anna King.
"Last year was very disappointing," Stephen Pierce said of Eden's postseason, in which injuries -- including one to current North Carolina player Heather Henry -- helped derail the Raiders' attempt at a third straight state title as Eden lost in five games to Hendrick Hudson. "We [had] devastating injuries before the states, and the girls are gunning to redeem themselves."
>OP, NT will tackle teams
Orchard Park and North Tonawanda are two schools that have spent many years in football championship games, and this year their girls volleyball programs are definitely ones to watch.
North Tonawanda just missed making the semifinals of the elite St. Mary's Tournament, where the final four were a who's who of WNY: Eden, Frontier, Lancaster and the host Lancers.
The young Lady Jacks lost only one senior from last year's team. Junior outside hitter Lauren Metzger spent her summer with USA Volleyball. Other key returners are junior Sarah Hansen, sophomore Delaney Laper and sophomore Jordan Tylec. NT beat on Monday a Kenmore West team that went undefeated in the league last season. The two meet again Oct. 5 in a match that could decide the Niagara Frontier League race.
"They showed they can play with anybody," Pierce said of NT's showing at St. Mary's.
OP was listed as a surprise team by some entering the season, and they didn't take long to make a name for themselves by beating Lancaster in ECIC I play. Senior Jen Karan is a powerful lefty who hits a heavy ball while Meg Mankowski is also back for the Quakers.
OP's ascent should make the always-intriguing ECIC I race that much more exciting. Defending Class AA champion Frontier has more than a court full of returners in Rachael Stoklosa, Lauren Rojek, Kelsey Osborne, Shannon Farrell, Kara Michelsen, Katie Russi, Emily McCabe and Anna Campbell. Mark your calendar for Oct. 6 (Frontier at Orchard Park) and Oct. 8 (Lancaster at Frontier). The top returning players for Lancaster's powerful program are Brittany Anthon, Julia Gangloff, Nicole Texido and Sara Stack.
>Around the gyms
* Western New York has three defending state champions -- St. Mary's and top returner Jessica Warner won the school's 11th Catholic state championship last year while Salamanca won Class C and Portville took Class D.
* City Honors aims for its 24th straight Buffalo Public Schools title when league play begins Thursday afternoon. The Centaurs had four underclassmen among last year's All-High honorees: senior libero Brielle Sansone, senior setter Natalya Burgess, senior outside hitter Alysia Negron and junior middle blocker Natalie Southard.
* The state-imposed cutbacks to regular season schedules across all sports have made an impact in girls volleyball.
"It really stings," said Eden's Pierce. "This year we were already committed to two two-day tournaments, one in New Jersey -- which St. Mary's is going to, too -- and Horseheads. Throw in the St. Mary's Tournament and our [Eden] Tournament and 12 league games and that leaves only two dates. That really hurts us, especially for our crowd -- we like to host big nonleague matches."
There are no line judges in girls volleyball this year.
>New coaches in ECIC
There are plenty of new faces on the ECIC sidelines this season, including Hamburg's John Crangle and Williamsville North's Keith Hopkins in ECIC I.
The other divisions -- ECIC II: Tom Sproule (Williamsville South), Bill Connelly (Pioneer), Dave Kutina (West Seneca East); ECIC III: Meredith Cook (Maryvale), Jessica Herraez (East Aurora), Matt Parisi (Amherst). ECIC IV: Colleen Andres (Tonawanda), Colleen Szablewski (Alden), Dan Polino (Cleveland Hill), Sean Muldoon (Lackawanna).
Class AA: Frontier. Class A: Starpoint. Class B: Eden. Class C: Salamanca. Class D: Portville.
Buffalo Public Schools: City Honors. Monsignor Martin Association: St. Mary's. ECIC I: Frontier, Lancaster. ECIC II: Starpoint. ECIC III: Cheektowaga, Maryvale. ECIC IV: Eden. Niagara Frontier League: Kenmore West. Niagara-Orleans League: Roy-Hart. CCAA I: Falconer.
All-WNY first team: Stacey Smith-12 (Eden).
Large schools: First team -- Sydney Palka-12 (Starpoint), Brittany Anthon-11 (Lancaster), Taylor Lewandowski-11 (Kenmore West), Kayley Vazquez (Kenmore West). Second team -- Kelsey Osborne-12 (Frontier), Jen Karan-12 (Orchard Park), Kaitlin Orcutt-12 (W.S. West), Shannon Memminger-12 (Sweet Home), Katie Prue-12 (Lockport), Lauren Metzger-11 (North Tonawanda). Honorable mention: Delaney Laper-10 (North Tonawanda).
Small schools: First team -- Heather Feldman-11 (Eden), Stacey Smith-12 (Eden), Jessica Warner-12 (St. Mary's), Natalie Southerland-10 (City Honors).
Saturday: Sweet Home Invitational, Wilson Tournament.
Sept. 26: Eden Tournament, West Seneca Invitational.
Oct. 10: Frontier Tournament.
Oct. 17: North Tonawanda Lady Jacks Invitational.
Oct. 23: Section VI tournament begins.
Nov. 4-5: Section VI finals.
Nov. 14: Far West Regionals at Section VI site TBA.
Nov. 21-22: State championships at Glens Falls Civic Center.
>On the Web
For more information and discussion on girls volleyball, go to the Prep Talk blog at buffalonews.com/blogs.