Wall first-year coach Dan Leonard makes no bones about it.
How far his Crimson Knights will go depends largely on how Ryan Donahue performs.
“We will roll on Ryan Donahue,” Leonard said.
Donahue figures to be one of the Shore Conference’s top players after winning All-Shore first-team honors a year ago at outside hitter with 101 kills, 64 blocks, 13 digs and 29 aces. He owns the Crimson Knights’ career blocks record (104). He has added 116 career kills, 27 career digs and 34 career aces.
“He’s a big-time player,” Leonard said. “He will take about half our swings. Even when he is in the back row, he is still a threat.”
Donahue gives Wall a player with a large frame at 6-foot-4. And he’s an outside hitter who provides plenty of leadership.
“He’s almost like having another coach on the floor,” Leonard said. “He knows the game so well. In practice, he is like another assistant coach as he instructs our other players and tries to turn them into the best players they can be. As a first-year coach, he has been a huge help to me.”
To hear Leonard tell it, Donahue has improved his play in several areas since last season when Wall went 15-6 overall and finished tied for second with Howell in Shore Conference Class A South behind Southern Regional at 7-3.
“He has gotten a lot stronger,” said Leonard, a former baseball player at Clifton and The College of New Jersey. “His confidence is way up. I feel he is able to hit better. He’s able to get a little higher and hit over the block.”
Donahue, who is in his fourth varsity season, has also played setter.
“We want him at outside hitter to get him as many swings and touches as possible,” Leonard said. “He is also a very good setter, but we want to give him a lot of chances to swing as he has turned himself into such a strong hitter.”
Leonard also expects strong play from 6-foot-1 junior setter Mike Smith, who handed out 223 assists last season.
“He had a good year last year,” Leonard said. “We will run a 5-1 around him. He has made himself a lot better by going to camps and playing in winter leagues. He’s dedicated to making himself as good a player as he can be.”
Senior middle blocker Rick Wlazlowski also hopes to make a positive impact for the Crimson Knights after notching nine blocks last season. He owns a 6-foot-3 frame.
“He spent most of last season as an outside hitter on our junior varsity team last season,” Leonard said. “He saw action in a couple of varsity matches. He’s in a new role as he is very, very athletic, has long arms and moves laterally very, very well. He is best served for us in the middle as he is a workhorse. In our system, our middle blockers block everything. His athleticism has allowed him to fit into that role very well.”
Another of the team’s key returnees from last year is 6-foot-1 junior outside hitter Chris Smith.
“He has dedicated himself to getting better at the sport,” Leonard said. “He worked a lot on his game during the offseason. He’s a strong hitter who is able to play all six positions. He’s good on defense and is a solid all-around player. He owns a godo serve and is a good passer. He’s a good hitter and a good blocker.”
Sophomore middle blocker Ed Palluzzi and freshman right side-outside hitter Brady Donahue are among the team’s key newcomers.
“Ed is very smart and very athletic,” Leonard said. “He’s able to go up, read the defense and place balls. He can do anything on the court because of his athleticism.”
Donahue brings experience to the court.
“He has been playing club ball for about three years,” Leonard said. “He’s a good hitter and is very smart. If I need him to set, he can set. If I need him to play libero, he can play libero.”
The Crimson Knights will compete in Class A Central with Red Bank Catholic, Long Branch, Monsignor Donovan, Manchester and Barnegat.
“We are lucky we are in a little bit of a weaker division, but Donovan and Manchester are in there,” Leonard said. “Our inexperience will probably show every once in a while, but we are so athletic. I hope our athleticism makes up for it.”