It might seem like it has been a long time since the Fox Chapel boys volleyball team carried a No. 1 ranking on its way to winning the WPIAL title and finishing second in the state.
That’s because 2015 was the last time Fox Chapel reached the postseason. And for a program rich in volleyball tradition, it seems like an eternity.
“Last year, we were pretty new,” said Fox Chapel’s Phil O’Keeffe, in his 16th season as coach. “The younger guys were young, and the older guys were inexperienced. We didn’t make the playoffs again, and now we’re in an 0-5 hole (in section play). It’s going to be tough to climb back out of it. However, (all season long) I’ve been playing around with different lineups.”
With just six section games remaining, the Foxes need to be near perfect if they want to get back into the postseason.
O’Keeffe is in an unfamiliar position. No one on the 19-player roster has been to the postseason. Most notably, Fox Chapel has six seniors on the roster, and not one of them sat courtside during the Foxes’ 2015 WPIAL title run.
“I realize that being in the WPIAL finals is probably not in the cards every year, but I need to have a light at the end of the tunnel where the (WPIAL) finals are in our future at some point, like in two, three or four years,” O’Keeffe said. “I need a sign from the freshmen and sophomores that they want it too. Once they want it, it goes on its own.”
The Foxes have struggled this season. Winless in section play, Fox Chapel won just one set against a section opponent — two weeks ago in a 3-1 home loss to Shaler.
While it might be easy to play out the string of regular-season games and call it a season, O’Keeffe has taken a different approach. With the bulk of his players being young, inexperienced, or both, he finds himself making changes to his lineup sooner than he would have in previous years.
“There’s definitely a lot of guys that want to fight hard but not necessarily yet have the capability to fight hard,” O’Keeffe said. “My young guys haven’t been playing that long. They, sometimes talk the talk but they don’t walk it.”
Coming off a tough week last week with Section 2-AAA losses to Butler and North Allegheny, and placing 13th out of 15 teams two weekends ago at the Derry tournament, Fox Chapel needed to dramatically shake up its rotation ahead of Saturday’s Fox Chapel Volleyball Classic, O’Keefe said.
He moved junior outside hitter Brendan Gladwin to libero and senior middle hitter Jacob Klein to outside hitter. The 6-foot-3 Klein is in his second season playing for the Foxes. Fox Chapel also has youth at the most critical position on the floor in freshman setter John Lindgren.
“We’ve had a lot of experimentation throughout the season, but it hasn’t been effective,” Klein said. “Nobody is selfish. This is a very selfless team, and we’re willing to play any role. One of our weaknesses is our inconsistencies, and as a team we get into a rut and our hitting suffers a bit.”
The new lineup helped pull Fox Chapel out of what seems to be a season-long rut. The Foxes avenged losses to Beaver County Christian and District 10 heavyweight Saegertown at their host tournament. The new rotation produced results O’Keeffe has been looking for as Fox Chapel finished third in the 11-team field that included rivals Central Catholic, Bethel Park, Plum and Pine-Richland.
“This (lineup) is noticeably different,” O’Keeffe said. “If I could backtrack three weeks with this lineup, it would be probably a little bit of a different result.”
Though there are no players who were a part of the 2015 WPIAL championship team, O’Keeffe finds himself bringing back the same mottos he used four seasons ago.
“I tell them that confidence is an earned commodity, there’s no substitute for it and you just have to go out and earn it,” he said. “They haven’t earned anything up until now, so it’s kind of hard to feel confident.”