"We've got a lot of talent; we're just not that deep," he said. "Justin Fong's injury has made a team that isn't that deep to start with even less deep. But we're trying to work around that."
And work around it they have. A modest Panzella made some key changes to his lineup in Fong's absence, allowing two sophomores who have never played at the varsity level to vie for his spot. Shair Wahidi has been getting the bulk of the playing time in the middle, while Cameron Turney has provided backup assistance. Senior Justin Smith still holds down the right side hitter position with his perfectly positioned kills and silent leadership, while fellow senior Eric Aiello reads the opposition from the back row as libero. Junior Kyle Brawley, who led the team in kills with 163 as of Wednesday morning, is having a tremendous season at the outside hitter position, allowing for more offensive options.
But the biggest change to the Deer Valley lineup came when Panzella moved senior Erik Aku, a former outside hitter named the BVAL's Most Valuable Player last season, to the setter position. Despite his initial concerns, Aku has made a seamless transition, leading the team with 471 assists and providing 115 digs on the season as of Wednesday.
"It was a little frustrating at first, but as the season's progressed I've gotten better at it," Aku said. "It's different. It's more of a rush when you're hitting but at the same time it's for the good of the team."
Panzella believes that the team simply needed more experience at the setter position after losing Eric Farnworth to graduation last year. With tremendous court awareness and an instinctive knowledge of the game, Aku was his first choice.
"Much to his credit, he made the sacrifice to do this for the good of the team," Panzella said. "I think it shows the kind of guy he is and what kind of character he has that he's willing to make that kind of change."
Panzella's Wolverines currently sit atop the BVAL standings with a 7-0 league record and a 12-2 overall record after Tuesday's 25-19, 25-19, 23-25, 25-17 win over De La Salle (3-2 BVAL).
The Spartans, whose 114-match win streak was snapped by Antioch on March 15, are now in fourth place, three matches out of first. Antioch is just one match behind Deer Valley in second place; Liberty is currently in third.
Deer Valley's recent four-game victory over Antioch gave the Wolverines a slight boost of confidence heading into Tuesday's match with De La Salle. But Deer Valley never changed its strategy.
"Despite what happened before, we didn't want to go easy on them," Smith said. "I've been wanting to beat them for a long time, especially since they've beaten us so many times. This is definitely exciting."
Panzella's strategy was simple heading into the match: have Aku "run the middles and we'll be successful." The result was double-digit kills for Wahidi and Turney and an overall Wolverine win. Smith had 16 kills and 19 digs. Brawley added 13 kills and six digs. Aku made 48 assists and 13 digs.
"This is our first time beating De La Salle in league play at the varsity level, ever," Panzella said. "It's a big win for us."