A year ago Ali Koval spent most of her time watching North Penn-Liberty’s success from the bench.
As a sophomore Koval totaled 17 digs, 17 serves received and 11 points for the Mounties.
It wasn’t that Koval wasn’t talented.
It wasn’t that the team didn’t think she could contribute.
It was the fact that the Mounties had Savannah Doney, last year’s NTL and All-Region Defensive Player of the year.
“I always sat on the bench, anxiously waiting and hoping my name would get called to step onto the court,” Koval said. “It was very hard to watch and not play at all because I play at such a high club level with talented girls from around the NTL and in upstate New York.”
After last season, there are people who might have questioned
From the outside, there were plenty who likely questioned how NP-Liberty would replace Doney.
There were plenty who likely thought that NPL would take a step back defensively this year.
That was from the outside. Those around the program knew how good Koval was.
Those around the program saw how hard she worked, saw how good she could be.
And, now given a chance Koval hasn’t disappointed.
A year ago North Penn-Liberty had the best defensive player in the NTL. She graduated, and the team replaced her with the best defensive player in the NTL.
Doney knew that when she left the team wouldn’t miss a beat.
“I knew without a doubt Ali would step into the libero spot when I was gone,” Doney said. “She was always such a good player. I loved being in the back with her because I always thought we worked well together.”
And, the rest of the NP-Liberty team had plenty of confidence in their new libero.
“The whole team knew Ali was great and just needed her chance to play,” JoAnne McNamara said. “We had no worries at all for her to step in and take Savannah’s spot.”
While there weren’t a lot of opportunities for Koval last year, she tried to enjoy the chances she did have.
And, while some kids might have resented sitting on the bench, Koval made the most of the time, learning and trying to get better and better.
“I would ooh and ahh from the bench, but I knew the next season I would get my chance,” Koval said. “It was hard going onto the court as an underclassmen and an underdog. I felt unnecessary pressure because I think people expected me to screw up a lot. And, having to go from sitting two sets to being thrown into a third set with four points to go was hard. You’re not warmed up at all and you want to be able to prove your worth and that you belong on the court.
“But, I knew I had supportive teammates around me to pick up the mistakes I made. I tried my best and tried to stay out of my own head and just played the game I knew how to play. I didn’t get much of a chance to prove myself in games, but I’m grateful for the time I got. Just watching Savannah taught me how to keep a calm and straight platform which really helped me during serve receive. She was always a good teammate that really picked me up when I missed a dig or had an off pass.”
There’s an old adage, offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.
It’s a phrase commonly used in football, but it could certainly apply to volleyball as well.
North Penn-Liberty has a number of offensive weapons. From Charisma Grega to Maddison Minyo. There are Grace Tice and Lizzi Welch with JoAnne McNamara and Julia Nawri setting them all up.
While the Mounties are dominant on offense, and the high flying kills can get the crowd fired up, it’s been the team’s defense that has been a big key to their run to the state final.
And, no one exemplifies that defense more Ali Koval.
You will watch another team’s hitter line up and power a sure-fire kill, only to see Koval dive in at the last second to save it before it hits the ground.
That’s the thing with Koval, she hates seeing the ball hit the floor.
A year ago Doney saw that. She would watch as Koval could get to anything on the court.
She knew the girl that was a backup the first two years of her career would soon become a star.
“I remember during practice we would always go on about how ‘scrappy’ she was because she could literally get to any ball on, or off, the court,” Doney said. “The ball would not touch the court if she had anything to say about it. I’m so happy to see how well she’s doing this year, and can’t wait to see what she does next year to.”
Teammates watch in awe as Koval saves things that seem like sure kills.
For McNamara it helps her as a setter having Koval to get the ball up to her.
“It’s great having such a good libero when being a setter because she puts the ball right where it needs to be every time for me to set it,” McNamara said. “And, it’s crazy every time someone from the other team hits the ball and Ali is there. You think well, they are going to get a kill, but then Ali is there to take it.”
A year after having 17 digs, Koval is now closing in on 500 for her career. She’s got her eyes on a milestone that few reach, 1,000 digs, and she’s hoping to have a chance to do that in just two seasons as a starter.
For Koval, she knew people were going to doubt her. But, she also knew she was working to be the best player she could be.
“I didn’t feel much pressure stepping in as libero,” she said. “I knew people would underestimate my abilities and thought defense was going to be our weakest area. But, I came into this season with something to prove. I wanted to play my heart out, be one of the best, work everyday in practice. I needed to prove that I belonged in that libero jersey and that I earned that spot. I wanted to win districts and beat Holy Redeemer and hit those milestones.
“I am five digs away from 500 and next year I will work even harder to reach 1,000 digs. But, I didn’t feel pressure from anybody but myself. I wanted to do well for the team and for myself.”
North Penn-Liberty had a little bit of a new look this year after losing some key players a year ago.
However, the girls knew each other, had played together growing up, and were ready to see what they could do this year.
“At one point or another all of us have played club together,” Koval said. “I knew how well they did back then and we all knew great things were going to come from this season, especially since everybody underestimated us after losing the seniors last year. They are amazing players and I am so thankful to have them at the net, it makes my job a lot easier.”
For Koval it’s a lot of fun when she is able to make a big dig to help the team out.
“Getting a dig off a really good hit makes me feel amazing,” Koval said. “In the moment I don’t feel like it’s a big deal or a hard hit. I’m just there to receive the ball. But, after it happens I just want to make sure it’s a good pass and I was able to get it up. After hearing everybody get rowdy and scream and yell it makes me so happy to know I contributed to the match, set or even for that point. As a defensive player you only get recognition after that play or that really good dig, but even that is enough to make me feel amazing and like I really deserve to be on this team as the libero.”
From early on this season Koval and NPL knew that the team was capable of something special.
“From the beginning of the season we were all anxious and ready to get on the court,” Koval said. “But, after that first game I think we all knew this was going to be a very special year, and we were all going to show everyone what we could do.”
All year long Koval has shined for the Mounties.
All year long she has been a star for NPL.
But, when the playoffs started, she took things to an even higher level.
The star became a superstar in the biggest moments of the year.
“I love playing at a high level,” Koval said. “And playing with more intensity and passion is the reason I play better and push myself to work harder and prove myself. The adrenaline pumps so much faster during high speed games when you don’t know if you are going to win or not. And when you don’t know where the hitter is going to hit it, especially when it’s a state playoff game. There is so much to gain now. And we are ready to work 10 times harder if it means a state title.”