Can youthful Fillies still be a power?
RON GOWER/TIMES NEWS Rebecca Hartman of Marian Catholic leaps high to spike the ball during volleyball practice at the school. In background is Abby O'Donnell.
John "Doc" Fallabel has been coaching volleyball at Marian since 2003.
During that time, his greatest challenge on the court has always come from Nativity.
However, this season the Fillies mentor has been faced with an even bigger challenge - one that comes from within his own team.
After finishing undefeated in the regular season, capturing a Schuylkill League Championship and finishing as the District 11 runner-up, the Fillies roster has been gutted by graduation.
Marian must now replace seven seniors, six of whom were starters, which puts Fallabel in a situation he has never experienced before.
"In years past, when girls graduated, we simply reloaded," stated Fallabel. "We always had experience and All-State players sitting on the bench. There was always a class below them that could step in and fill their shoes."
Not this season.
Marian's varsity roster this year consists of only one senior (Joanna Butala) and two juniors. The rest of the team is comprised of four sophomores and four freshmen.
One of the key returnees is junior outside hitter and 2010 TIMES NEWS Volleyball Player of the Year Marykate Sherkness, who established a new single-season school record for kills last season with 471. The only other player to see significant varsity action a season ago was Nicole Collevechio, who came off the bench as the team's serving specialist and defensive specialist.
Despite the lack of varsity experience, Fallabel isn't hitting the panic button.
"I'm actually pretty optimistic about our younger kids," added Fallabel. "They have a lot of enthusiasm, but they also have so much to learn. It's now our job as coaches to teach them how to become better volleyball players."
That learning process began in grade school for most of this year's underclassmen as members of the Coal Crackers Volleyball Club, an AAU program directed by Fallabel.
Last season, the program consisted of five teams and 44 girls (ages 10-17) in grades 3-11.
"I've really been making a concerted effort to rebuild from within through AAU," noted Fallabel. "The program is flourishing and it allows me to identify (all the way down to third grade) who my players are that are going to be coming up."
"That being said, while these girls might be new faces at Marian, I've known about them and have been working with them for several years now."
Currently, Fallabel is toying around with different lineups, but if the season started today, he'd be rolling out a starting lineup consisting of two freshmen and two sophomores.
"In all my years of coaching, I've never had to start a freshman setter (Abby O'Donnell), yet alone start two freshmen on the court together at the same time (in addition to Emily Pilla)," noted Fallabel.
While this season will no doubt be an adjustment for himself and the entire coaching staff, it might be just as big of an adjustment for Sherkness, an All-State selection last season whose KRVA team over the winter placed 18th in the national championships (out of 48 teams).
On that team, her setter is going to Penn State as a walk-on defensive specialist and one of the middle hitters was offered a full Division 1 scholarship to James Madison University.
"She's basically going from a team with elite college players to a team with a bunch of underclassmen with no varsity experience and limited court time," said Fallabel. "Is it going to be a change for her? Yes! Is it something she's going to have to get used to? Yes!"
However, despite the roster turnover and plenty of new faces, expectations remain the same, just as with any other previous Marian team.
"Let's not forget the fact that these girls have been trained. The freshmen have been playing with me at camps and winter ball for the past four years," stated Fallabel. "They know their positions, they know their responsibilities and they know their rotations."
"Is this too early for them to start varsity? To be honest, it's probably two years too early, but I'm okay with that because I don't really have any other choice, and quite frankly, I have more faith in them than anyone else in the program."
Fallabel also has faith that his team can still contend for League and District Championships, despite the youth movement and rebuilding efforts.
"By the end of the season, I won't have three or four freshmen playing, I'll have a seasoned team out there," concluded Fallabel. "Will they be clockwork like last year's team? Probably not! Could they be as good as last year's team? There's a possibility!"
Only time will tell, but that's part of the challenge.