Wednesday, September 22, 2021 | 10:12 AM
Hempfield volleyball coaches Payton Hileman (left) and head coach Ashten Flynn (right) pose for a photo in the Hempfield gymnasium during the 2021 season.
Friends since birth? Well, perhaps not that far back.
But close enough.
To the best of their recollection, Ashten Flynn and Payton Hileman have been “best friends” since they were 3 years old.
“Our parents were good friends, too,” Flynn said. “They did all kinds of things together, and the two of us were right there along with them. Payton and I have done so much together.”
They grew up just miles apart in Fayette County, Flynn in Dunbar and Hileman in Connellsville.
The two were classmates throughout in the Connellsville Area School District, where they played on volleyball teams through high school before both enrolled at Penn State.
They’re still at it today, having taken on the coaching responsibilities for the Hempfield girls team, Flynn serving as head coach and Hileman as her assistant in charge of the junior varsity team.
“It was already June, but Ashten was looking for someone to help her, and we’ve always really had good chemistry,” Hileman said. “That’s what we’re trying to show the team. It’s how well you play together, as much as anything, that provides an opportunity for success. She said to me, ‘If I’m going to take this job, I want you with me.’ That was enough for me.
“I hope we can do great things for Hempfield.”
So far, it appears to be working.
Flynn was a late replacement in June at Hempfield for Kourtney Foriska, who resigned for personal reasons.
She said she learned of the opening from Jason Ross, the school’s assistant athletics director, after finishing up her first organized coaching stint with Connellsville-based club team No Borders Volleyball.
“I really enjoyed that experience. I loved working with the kids,” Flynn said. “The Hempfield job is a good opportunity for me to continue with it.”
Not long ago, Flynn and Hileman, both 23, were in similar positions to their current players. After all, they’re fresh out of college.
Neither played volleyball after high school, where Flynn, a former setter, was a WPIAL first-team all-section player during her senior year in 2015-16. She and Hileman, who played outside hitter, filled important roles on Connellsville teams that qualified three times for the WPIAL playoffs.
“I’ve had some people say, ‘Oh, you’re so young to be coaching a high school team,’” Flynn said. “I just figure it’s a benefit to those girls these days to have someone close to their age that they can relate to. Payton and I are one-in-the-same in a lot that we say and do, and I think our message is getting through to them.”
The Spartans roster includes two seniors — middle blocker Emma Hornyak and outside hitter Kaitlyn Ross — but despite its youthful look, Hempfield has shown to be a capable opponent in the early going.
Hempfield went 6-0 in pool play to open the season at the Franklin Regional Tournament before losing to Penn-Trafford in the championship game 25-21.
Hempfield and Penn-Trafford, ranked No. 9 in the latest Western Pennsylvania Volleyball Association Class 4A poll, are no strangers, having been aligned in recent years in Section 3-4A of the WPIAL.
Hempfield was 2-1 in dual matches before the past weekend, beating a pair of Section 3 opponents, Connellsville and Norwin, and losing to No. 4 Oakland Catholic.
Nine juniors and 11 sophomores round out a balanced Hempfield roster that Flynn said is anchored by the two seniors, Hornyak and Ross.
“Those two play a key role and are the perceived leaders,” Flynn said. “The rest of the girls all have roles that we depend on and they’re all giving it everything they have so far.”
Flynn said that, of course, she wants the Spartans to win enough to finish among the top three teams in the section and qualify for the WPIAL playoffs, but she and Hileman are most concerned with seeing their players grow into productive young adults.
“We were where they are now in what seems like yesterday,” Flynn said. “This gives us every opportunity to be role models for these girls. Teenagers need an adult they can trust. That’s us. So far, we’re off on the right foot.”
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