By: William Whalen
Sunday, April 14, 2019 | 5:12 PM
The Plum boys volleyball team held its annual invitational tournament Saturday. For a team that has yet to win a set in section play, the tourney acted as a midseason break, an opportunity to get out of section play and try new things against some of the WPIAL’s top teams.
The Mustangs struggled early, and Plum coach Keith Nonnenberg didn’t know what he should do. He didn’t know whether he should play good cop or bad cop, but something needed to happen.
“It’s been very difficult,” Nonnenberg said. “I told them (Saturday) morning that I don’t know if I should yell at you guys or give you all a hug.
“That’s a very difficult thing to do as a coach, which is to find out what motivates. Each individual player is different, and each individual team is different from year to year. I haven’t figured it out yet. I’ll let you know.”
Since its last section title in 2015, Plum has looked to rebuild. The transition has been a painful one.
With the season nearing the midway point, the Mustangs still are looking for their first win of the season and rest at the bottom of the Section 3-AAA standings. Plum (0-5, 0-5) has company, sharing the basement with Penn Hills.
Nonnenberg’s biggest challenge is figuring out a way to keep his players’ chins up. With all of the ups and downs on the season so far, there’s plenty of areas where the Mustangs need to improve, but Nonnenberg points to his team’s confidence as the one thing that needs change for the better.
“We have to improve in our confidence, and it’s hard to do if you’re not winning any games,” Nonnenberg said. “The two go hand-in-hand. I told them it has to come from within. I watch them play, and at times they look fantastic and at times they look like they don’t know how to play the game. It’s been frustrating for everybody.”
All is not doom and gloom for Plum. While the Mustangs have a heavy senior presence with eight on the roster, the sophomore class looks to turn the corner.
“Honestly, I expected more,” sophomore right-side hitter Alex Vidas said. “We were expecting more out of our players. I think we’re a much better team this year than last year. Teamwork-wise, we have a lot of less selfish players than we had last year.”
Vidas leads the Mustangs in kills and blocks and has yet to scratch the surface of his potential. But the 6-foot-6 hitter is young, and at times it shows.
“Alex Vidas, in a way, he can look like the best player in the gym,” Nonnenberg said. “He has to work on his confidence because when he makes a mistake he lets it snowball into two and three and four mistakes. He’s certainly a big-time player. He reminds me a lot of Khaynen (Yocca) when Khaynen was young.”
Vidas thinks the future of Plum volleyball looks bright.
“I think we can definitely win states by my senior year,” Vidas said. “I’m trying to get some of the basketball kids to play, even if that means that I have to play basketball to get them to play.”
Another promising young standout is sophomore middle hitter Evan Azzara. The 6-6 tackle on the Plum football team is in his first season playing the sport. He brings a football mentality, work ethic and sense of toughness to a team still in search of an identity.
“You just got to work in practice every day and get better,” Azzara said. “We just got to win and play hard. We make the same mistakes sometimes over and over again. We just need to pay attention and fix it.”
Azzara took advantage of an opportunity when early in the season a teammate missed the team bus to the Fox Chapel tournament. He’s been in the starting lineup ever since.
As for the back half of the regular-season schedule, the recipe is as simple as bump, set, spike, and with a little added confidence the Mustangs have the potential to be a team no one wants to see down the stretch run.
“I think we’re more talented, but we are grossly underachieving,” Nonnenberg said. “We are significantly better than our record indicates. We’re just underachieving right now.”
William Whalen is a freelance writer.