Phil O’Keeffe is well into his second decade of coaching boys volleyball at Fox Chapel. So his calling the current group of Foxes the youngest team of his tenure is a significant statement.
A batch of players that includes one senior, two juniors and more than a dozen sophomores and freshmen is learning on the job this spring as Fox Chapel attempts to compete for a WPIAL playoff spot in the rugged Section 2-AAA.
“I like this group,” said O’Keeffe, in his 17th season at Fox Chapel. “They’re good. They’re getting better. They’re competitive. They’re going about things the right way. We’re getting out-experienced and out-sized right now, but they’re playing the game correctly.”
Fox Chapel (0-1, 0-1) began its section season with as big a test as any, dropping a 3-0 decision to perennial power North Allegheny. But while O’Keeffe said the Foxes’ inexperience showed, he considered it a good learning experience.
The program’s playoff drought reached three seasons in 2018. Fox Chapel’s last postseason appearance, in 2015, ended with a WPIAL Class AAA championship and a PIAA runner-up finish.
O’Keeffe, who also led Fox Chapel to a WPIAL title in 2006, compared his current group to the early years of the 2015 championship team.
“The sizes are all the same, and the skill level is getting there,” O’Keeffe said. “The ’15 crew, when they were freshmen, they were like the last guys on any club team. They were not even thought of as being that good. But there was a lot of them, they put the time in and got better, and all of a sudden, they didn’t have one stud but they had seven very good players.”
To help with the learning process, O’Keeffe whittled his roster down to a more manageable 17 players, comparing the group to something like a large club team, and got to work on instruction.
“It was a lot of skill work in the beginning,” O’Keeffe said. “The thing they need most is experience. … It’s a little more learning, a little more basic stuff, even though I’ve always done that. But just getting their mindset correct, you only get from Point A to Point D through Point B and C.”
O’Keeffe said Fox Chapel fared well in some early tests, including a 25-21 loss to PIAA power Central York in the playoffs of the North Allegheny Tournament, followed by the section defeat against North Allegheny, the two-time defending WPIAL champion.
Junior outside hitter Patrick Kiszka stood out as the Foxes’ best player against North Allegheny, O’Keeffe said, and fellow junior John Mark Klamut had some good kill numbers and blocks. Those two will be joined on the hitting line by sophomore twins Arda and Kaya Akinci in the middle and sophomore Michael Tarasi, younger brother of former All-WPIAL hitter Raymond Tarasi, at opposite hitter. Freshman Eli Yofan, a basketball star for Fox Chapel this winter, could see time on the front line.
Senior Dom Zacharias is Fox Chapel’s setter, and sophomores Brendan Gladwin and James Klatt are competing at libero.
Fox Chapel has a big week in front of it with matches against Butler, Shaler and North Hills during the week and the Foxes’ host tournament Saturday. O’Keeffe said the key to the team’s success will be finding a way to coalesce as the season goes.
“There’s been three years off from playoffs, so I’m kind of not liking the fact that (we’ve missed),” O’Keeffe said. “For me, I love the playoffs, and for them, they haven’t smelled it yet. I think we’re right in the mix with everyone else. I think the key is to win a match they don’t think they can win. If they get one of those big wins, maybe they’ll have epiphany moments in their heads: ‘We’ve got this.’ ”
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter