2015 champions: Orchard Park (Section VI, Division I), Williamsville North (Section VI, Division II), Canisius (Monsignor Martin).
2015 All-WNY underclassmen: Griffin Schmit-11 (Canisius), Henry Payne-11 (Clarence).
Tough act to follow: How does Canisius follow up perfection?
“I don’t know if we can top last year,” said coach Tom Weislo of the Crusaders capping a 34-0 record by capturing the program’s 16th straight Monsignor Martin Association regular-season and postseason championships. “This group of guys will have a chance to carve out their own legacy.”
Even if many of the faces are still the same. Canisius returns nine, including four starters, from its Prep Talk Team of the Year squad – including Prep Talk Player of the Year Griffin Schmit. Schmit’s coming off a season in which he finished with a hitting percentage of .506, including 477 kills. His college suitors include Penn State, Harvard, Princeton and UCLA.
Schmit isn’t the only top talent on the Crusaders. Senior classmate Devin Joslyn heads into the season fresh off earning a spot on the United States Youth National Team, helping his country earn silver in the NORCECA Championships in Cuba. He and Schmit will be invited to try out for the U.S. Youth National team that qualified for the world tournament as a result of the team’s NORCECA placement.
Senior Chas Palka, like Joslyn a second-team All-WNY pick, is coming off a summer in which he won a number of beach volleyball tournaments. “In terms of all skills, he’s the most complete volleyball player in Western New York because he can do it all,” Weislo said.
Joslyn and Palka also are on the Division I radar, with Princeton interested in both of them. Other key Crusaders include senior Dan Kane, who will share setting and hitting duties with Palka, and junior Troy Gooch.
Canisius won’t leave the state for any tournament action this season, but its schedule is still challenging. It includes an appearance at the Cicero-North Syracause Tournament and nonleaguers at state Class A champion McQuaid, at Clarence and at Eden. The Crusaders also host Section V contender Fairport.
“It’s a great bunch of kids and I’m looking forward to starting the season with them,” Weislo said.
Is this the year? What do Clarence and the Buffalo Bills have in common?
The most recent time the Bills made the playoffs, 1999, is also the year the Red Devils last won the ECIC I and Section VI championships.
Clarence may have a better shot at ending its drought as it returns three starters from last season’s squad which lost to eventual section champion Orchard Park in five sets. It helps that Clarence has one of the top players in the area in 6-foot-4 senior Henry Payne. The offense flows through the coveted Division I recruit, whose suitors include Ohio State, Loyola (Chicago) and Brigham Young.
He’s not the only Red Devil looking to cause opponents Payne. Henry’s little brother Teddy is coming off a solid season in which he started as an eighth-grader.
Both Paynes participated in select high performance USA Volleyball Camps during the offseason, as did junior setter Sean Trznadel.
While several teams have deemed Clarence the favorite, veteran coach Kevin Starr knows the competition will be fierce as usual, especially in ECIC I. Remember, Lancaster is two seasons removed from winning sectionals, while Williamsville North is the reigning Section VI Division II champ. League rival Orchard Park is the defending Division I champion.
“That’s what ECIC I is like,” he said. “It’s a battle every match. … We’re going to be one of the top teams but Orchard Park will be strong again. Lockport (of the Niagara Frontier League) should have a nice team. … But we have as good of a chance as any other team.”
Champs look solid: The Quakers do return championship experience in juniors Cam Hassen and Matt Donohue, who is entering his third season. Senior Paul Hackford also saw lots of time on the court last year.
“We’re strong,” Orchard Park coach Matt Lexner said. “We don’t have a star hitter. (But) we’re good at a lot of things.”
New Frontier: Coach Bill Faust believes he has a group of sophomores that will turn out to be special for Frontier. Add five returning starters into the mix and the Falcons have reason to believe they may a team ready to soar to new heights after finishing one game above .500 last year.
The sophomores include 6-5 Brandon Dunz, who got called up to varsity midway through last season and performed very well. Three-sport athletes Brian Norsen and Ben Taylor are the younger brothers of Frontier graduates who earned All-WNY and should make an impact. “There’s some pedigree there,” Faust said.
Returning veterans include senior setter and third-year player Zach Gerken, a lefty who Faust calls a jack of all trades. Senior Alex Boglev will be used in different roles, too, as the Falcons look to win their first sectional title since 2011.
“It’s going to be a fun year,” Faust said.
What’s new: For the first time, the Section VI Tournament in Division II will be split into two classes. It makes perfect sense with there being 20 schools in that classification. With the classification numbers in volleyball different than most sports, this also gives legitimate Class B-sized schools an opportunity to contend for a sectional title. Normal Class A-sized schools have won the Division II title each year since 2011, with Williamsville North capturing the crown last year as a No. 18 seed.
“It levels the playing field a little bit,” Cheektowaga coach Jon Marcussen said. “Williamsville North is two-and-a-half-times bigger than we are. It’s hard to go against a school that has two-and-a-half-times more to choose from.”
North is in Division I this year as it is 16 students over the smaller-bracket limit of 949. But Niagara-Wheatfield, a member of Class AA North in football, is the largest of the teams in Division II at 946 – or 430 more students than Cheektowaga. Eden has only 333.
It should be noted that there are still four Class A-sized schools in other sports that will be part of the 10-team second bracket of Division II during the postseason, which will include smaller schools like Cheektowaga and Eden. But the odds are now a bit better for the non-Class A schools. For the record, Holland has the smallest enrollment in Division II at 213.
Eden update: With Division II now split into two classes, does this open the door for Eden to return to its championship ways? The Raiders haven’t won sectionals since 2010, capping an astounding run of 10 titles in 11 years.
Even though coach Robert Pierce’s crew graduated eight seniors, Eden can’t be discounted. “We’ll be relatively young, but I think we have some guys up to the challenge,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be the best team we can be come November.”
Returning starters include junior outside hitter Colin Rigley and senior middie Jesse Brockman. Senior Connor Higgins also has starts under his belt, while Pierce expects good things from junior Drew Hesse – who had a good offseason.
Another Raider to keep an eye on is football convert Sawyer Overhoff, a senior who opted to play volleyball last season after football canceled its varsity season due to lack of players. Pierce likes Overhoff’s athleticism and strength. “He’s a good leader and good kid to have on our court,” Pierce said.
Around the courts: Cheektowaga has eight returnees on its roster of five seniors and seven juniors. Junior Ervin Harrell is a talented, strong hitter for the Warriors. Other key returnees include seniors Zach Reinhardt and Matt Carney and junior Andrew Reichert. The Warriors last won sectionals in 2008.
-- Sean Taggert and C.J. Luksch return to lead St. Francis’ quest to end Canisius’ reign as league champions.
-- St. Joe’s returns four starters, including seniors Matthew Duke, outside hitter; Matthew Mayer, outside hitter; Michael Rizzo, the libero; and junior 6-4 middle blocker Connor Wolburt. Coach Mark Anzalone also expects good things from senior Stephen Wells.
-- Kenmore East looks to improve on last year’s 3-14 mark with a fairly young squad. Two seniors hoping to lead the way for eighth-year coach Kyle Horvatis’ crew include Konner Flynn and Joe Grisanti. Look for a lot of kills from the 6-4 Flynn, who was a team leader last year.
-- Hamburg expects to be very good on defense and controlling the ball, which should make the Bulldogs a dangerous team come postseason. Hamburg has some size on the outside in 6-5 Jacob Couzens and 6-2 Jon Gordner. Others hoping to lead the Bulldogs to their third sectional title in four years include libero/setter Dan Gunning and Alex Andrzejewski.
Save the dates: Clarence Tournament, Aug. 27; Eden Tournament (at Buffalo Niagara Center Court), Sept. 10; North Tonawanda Tournament, Sept. 10; Cheektowaga Tournament, Sept. 17; Ken-Ton Tournament, Sept. 24; Penfield Tournament, Oct. 8; Orchard Park Tournament, Oct. 15; Hamburg Tournament, Oct. 22.
Championship time: Section VI Tournament begins Oct. 28; Section VI Finals, Nov. 8 at Lackawanna; Section VI Division II overall final, Nov. 9 at Orchard Park; Far West Regionals at Orchard Park, Nov. 12; state Final Four, Nov. 19 at Suffolk Community College; Monsignor Martin Tournament, TBA.
Who’s the favorite to earn Prep Talk Player of the Year? Schmit, the reigning Player of the Year, Joslyn and Payne.