Summer conditioning workouts transitioned into formal practice Monday morning with the start of official practice for all fall sports.
Athletes participating in football, soccer (boys/girls), cross country (boys/girls), golf (boys/girls), volleyball (girls), tennis (girls), and field hockey (girls) took to the weight room, course, street, court, field and stadium to begin structured workouts in preparation for the upcoming fall sports seasons.
The Waynesburg Central golf team begins play for local teams on Thursday when the Raiders travel to Fort Cherry Golf Club to face the Rangers in a non-section match. Several local golf teams then travel to Chippewa Golf Course Friday morning for the annual TriCADA Tournament.
Girls tennis opens action on Monday, Aug. 19, the same day many golf teams begin section play.
Football teams have the option to play a second scrimmage or a game on Friday, Aug. 23. Seventeen of the 22 squads have opted to play in Week Zero, including tradition rivals Connellsville-Uniontown, Southmoreland-Mount Pleasant, Waynesburg Central-Jefferson-Morgan, and California-Beth-Center.
Otherwise, games, meets and matches officially open play on Friday, Aug. 30.
California will not field a boys golf team this fall, but Geibel Catholic has added a girls team.
Cross country runners had a very successful WPIAL meet last fall, headlined by Brownsville senior Gionna Quarzo and Belle Vernon junior Grace Henderson, who finished 2-3 in Class AA. Ringgold’s Lucas Pajak (junior) and Ethan Gamble (senior), West Greene sophomores Katie Lampe and Brooke Barner, California junior Makayla Boda, Brownsville junior Ashton Reposky and Elizabeth Forward junior Bailey McLaughlin all seek return trips to the state meet, as do the West Greene girls.
Brian Nicholson and his Falcon running squad greeted favorable running conditions Monday morning. Nicholson said the opening practice was the beginning of team bonding, as much as it was to gauge conditioning.
“It’s a beautiful day. We’re ready to go,” said Nicholson. “They were not required to be here (for summer conditioning). Today, this is the first day of being a team. This is your team. This is what it’s all about.”
Nicholson said of Monday’s workout, “It shows how important it is to put in the work. It shows them where they’re at.”
The Lady Falcons will be bolstered by the addition of Quarzo’s freshman sister, Jolena. The Quarzo sisters, Reposky and Hannah DeWitt give the Brownsville girls a solid quartet of runners.
“We want the team to set goals and hold themselves accountable,” explained Nicholson. “We do write down goals. I’d like them to keep a journal, but that actually is tough with all the homework they have.
“First and foremost, we want a happy, healthy season. I want them to enjoy what they’re doing. I want them to show sportsmanship and camaraderie, be a team first.”
The Lady Falcons had their string of five consecutive section titles snapped last season by West Greene, but Nicholson expects his squad to be in the hunt for a sixth title in seven years.
“Last year was very competitive with West Greene and Belle Vernon,” said Nicholson.
Although Brownsville won’t host many Section 3-AA meets, the Falcons will run on campus when they do.
“The course is behind the school. The school did a beautiful job. There are mile markers, the path is 15-feet wide with two bridges (over small creeks). It’s really nice,” said Nicholson.
Jeff Puskar started his 16th year as the Connellsville girls soccer coach reviewing team rules and regulations.
“Without a doubt, I don’t want to leave any holes in our philosophy,” explained Puskar. “I go over team rules.”
Puskar, along with trainer Mark Pohlot, also made sure all the girls had all their medical paperwork and testing completed, especially baseline for concussions. The Lady Falcons have dealt with their fair share of head injuries in recent years.
“Oh, my heavens, yes,” Puskar said of the recent spat of head injuries. “I have to keep a contact list with me. If there’s a medical issue, I’m the next one up and have to relay information to whomever.”
Puskar then had the squad go through its opening day paces.
“I want to utilize the entire field on technical stuff. Then, when we come back this afternoon, I’ll check on conditioning. In the first five minutes, I can tell who’s in shape and who’s not,” said Puskar, who will be assisted by Jacob Rice. “We’re going through basic fundamentals, throw-ins, basics in defensive posture. Defense wins championships. We’ll see who are the defenders.
“We’ll start small, then work big. Throw 22 girls out there and there is just chaos. They need to make sense of the chaos. They need to learn how to organize chaos.”
The Lady Falcons are experienced with eight seniors, but the squad also has eight freshmen.
Puskar and his squad had to deal with an issue arising from problems the boys team had against Penn Hills as they fought their way into the playoffs last year as the third-place team. This year’s section matches will be played as boy-girl doubleheaders.
“We just worry about things we can control on the field. It’s just sports. It’s still a game,” said Puskar.
Uniontown Athletic Director Aaron Scott met with his coaching staff, including new volleyball coach Jessy Madison, last week so golf coach Aaron Scott and the other coaches could have the paperwork done and out of the way when practices began Monday.
“I met with the fall coaches last Wednesday. All our forms are done. We’re up and running,” said Scott.
Although, situations still arose on the first day.
“I found out I only have two girls going out for the team. We only have eight kids,” said Scott.
The golf team has a new home course this fall, moving from its long-time home at Duck Hollow Golf Club to Uniontown Country Club.
“They’ve been very accommodating. I’ll miss Duck Hollow and (Albert Gallatin) coach (Bernie) Wydo and (Laurel Highlands) coach (Lou) Gonzales,” said Scott.
The veteran coach spent the first day reviewing the course with his team as they played a round.
“We should have home course advantage. I want to show them where we can pick up strokes where the other teams will make mistakes. I want to go over strategy so we don’t incur big numbers,” added Scott.
The Red Raiders finished second to Carmichaels last year in Section 8-AA and Scott hopes to make a similar run this fall.
“We lost Danae (Rugola), but her sister Adena is stepping up. I know Carmichaels lost (Matt Barrish). We have no depth, but have a solid five or six. I think we can make a run at the section,” said Scott.
Uniontown filled in an early open date left by California’s departure with a home match Tuesday, Aug. 20, with Laurel Highlands.
Carmichaels’ Remmey Lohr, Brownsville’s Lindsay Sethman and Geibel Catholic’s Caroline Konieczny, all juniors, and Greensburg C.C. sophomore Meghan Zambruno all medaled in the WPIAL Class AA Championship last year.
The Carmichaels volleyball team had its most successful season ever last year when the Lady Mikes ran through the WPIAL Class A playoffs before losing to Bishop Canevin in the finals.
Ashley Shoemaker led the Lady Mikes through that fine season, but will not be at the helm this fall after taking a maternity break with the birth of her daughter Avery in March.
However, the new coach is quite familiar to Shoemaker, as well as many of the Lady Mikes, with the hire of Shoemaker’s younger sister Julianne Speeney.
“Ashley didn’t want to miss parts of Avery’s life in the first year, so she decided not to coach this year,” explained Speeney.
Speeney was an assistant to Rick Watkins at Geibel, the sisters’ alma mater, for a number of years, but her job at West Virginia University led her to step down after the 2018 season.
“I live in Morgantown and it was too far to travel (to Connellsville). The drive was just too brutal,” said Speeney.
Speeney’s sister approached her earlier in the year about joining her staff.
“Ashley told me she had an extra assistant position if you want to coach,” said Speeney. “It gets in your blood. I had checked around Morgantown and there were no positions. I didn’t want to give it up.
“After I joined the staff, Ashley considered (taking the season off). Absolutely, I’ll take over. We talked with the other assistant, Emma Lewis, and I was approved by the board in June,” explained Speeney, a 2009 Geibel graduate.
Speeney expected to hit the court running when the Lady Mikes held their first practice Monday evening.
“We’re done with the paperwork, as far as I know,” said Speeney. “The kids worked hard through the summer. They were very good about keeping themselves in the game.
“I want to gauge a little better their identity. It’s a balancing act (as a new coach). We need to mesh appropriately. I need to be flexible with what the kids need from me.”
However, Speeney didn’t expect the transition to be that difficult for the Lady Mikes.
“We have about same coaching styles. We’re similar,” said Speeney of her sister. “I want to open their mind to new techniques. I want them to progress as a player, on and off the court.
“My sister expected them to work hard. I hold the same standards. We need to move forward and look to the future.
“They all want to return (to the playoffs) and exceed what they did last year. We have a big group of freshmen coming in. They need to become part of this culture and put everything out there. They need to put their whole self into the game.”
The game begins with the FCCA Tournament at Laurel Highlands on Saturday, Aug. 31. Geibel Catholic is among the eight squads in the local tournament.
“It won’t be strange at all. I respect Rick Watkins, as a coach and a friend. Rick instilled that into me,” Speeney said of possibly coaching against her former squad.