Over the years, there has been a lot of history made by the Northeastern and Central York boys’ volleyball programs.
The Bobcats own four PIAA titles, while the Panthers have won five. Both will look to add to those totals Saturday when they participate in the state finals at Penn State University.
Northeastern will battle Ambridge in a rematch of last year’s Class AA state final starting at 11 a.m. Central York will follow with a showdown against defending Class AAA state champion North Allegheny around 1 p.m.
If both the Bobcats and Panthers prevail Saturday, it would mark the first time York-Adams League teams won both titles in the same year.
“Hopefully we can both make that dream come true,” Northeastern coach Matt Wilson said.
The following is a preview of what to look for in each match.
Class AA — Northeastern vs. Ambridge: It was only a year ago when the Bobcats downed the Bridgers in four games en route to Northeastern’s second title in four years.
It didn’t take long for both sides to envision a rematch this year, and neither side disappointed, even if Wilson was a bit skeptical about his own team’s chances.
“I think both teams could very well be back here next year if they do what they’re supposed to do,” Wilson said moments after his team won last year’s title. “I think there’s a good chance of that. I’m very certain that they’ll be back, but hopefully we can find a way to get back here again.”
Clearly the two best AA teams in the state all season long, the roles for Saturday’s contest appear to be flipped from last June. Back then it was Northeastern which was ranked No. 1, while Ambridge was No. 2 in the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association poll. This year it’s been the Bridgers atop the poll almost wire-to-wire.
Wilson knows it’s not going to be easy.
“Our serve-receive is going to be crucial,” Wilson said. “If we break down like we did against Central, quite honestly I’m not sure if we’ll be able to pull out of that tailspin. And then I think that’s followed up by our service game and our defensive effort.”
The Bridgers clearly are a motivated bunch, hoping to get a bit of revenge on the Bobcats.
“One of our goals was to make it back to the PIAA finals and bring home the state title this time,” Ambridge coach Glenn Freed was quoted as saying Tuesday. “We’re one win away from reaching that goal. The kids are looking forward to the rematch with Northeastern.”
The District 3 champs will have their hands full with standout Lee Smith. The 6-foot, 6-inch Penn State recruit excels in all facets of the game. Shutting him down is no small task.
“We’re not going to stop Lee Smith,” Wilson said. “Smith is about as good as it gets. He’s one of the top attackers in the whole country. So you’re not going to stop him, but you need to take care of the other parts of the game, and maybe slow him down a bit and make sure the other guys don’t hurt you.”
One of those “other guys” is fellow outside attacker Brandon Buck, who, like Smith, can beat you with a spike, a block or an ace.
“Both Smith and Buck present lethal-type jump serves, so they’ll bring some heat from the service line,” Wilson said. “But if we can get through their rotations without too much damage, we should be OK. And we’re fortunate that here in York to have faced a guy like Jacob Kauffman, who probably has one of the most lethal jumpers in the state. And then there’s some guys from Central. So we’ve seen some big servers in the past and typically have handled those pretty well.”
Northeastern, however, presents its own set of problems for opponents, starting with Penn State recruit and setter Luke Braswell (633 assists, 78 kills, 68 blocks). The 6-foot 5-inch senior has a knack for distributing the ball to teammates in the best possible position. He’s also a threat on defense with his blocking ability.
Outsider hitter Reese Devilbiss (471 kills, 66 blocks, 53 aces) is unquestionably Wilson’s best attacker on any given day. The sophomore is a threat from anywhere on the court to put the ball on the ground. His defense, one area typically overlooked for an outside hitter, is quickly catching up to his powerful spikes.
Both Braswell and Devilbiss were out of action when the teams squared off in the State College Tournament earlier this season. Braswell, who missed more than a month with a shin injury, and Devilbiss are pretty close to 100 percent healthy, so Wilson isn’t putting much stake into the Bridgers’ 2-1 lead over the three games they’ve played this year.
“I know they’re a little bit different, but we’re certainly much different than where we were at that point in the season,” Wilson said. “And the best-of-five is a whole different ballgame than on a tournament on a Saturday morning.”
The outcome may be determined by how well Northeastern’s second or third options perform. Players such as Philip White (265 kills, 52 blocks, 49 aces), Jeffrey Reynolds (103 kills, 69 blocks), Casey Winand (174 kills, 85 blocks) and Matt Hollinger (121 kills, 25 blocks, 58 aces) will need to come up with big points.
“Philip, Jeffrey and Casey have been coming along wonderfully these past few weeks,” Wilson said. “I also have to say that Brandon Arentz (78 digs) has done a terrific job at the libero spot for us, and Chris Lee (19 aces) and Drew Landis (12 aces) have filled in roles as well.”
The serving of Hollinger (jumper) and Lee (floater) could prove pivotal to Northeastern’s chances Saturday.
“We score a lot of points when Chris Lee serves,” Wilson said. “It’s not a lethal jumper, but it’s like a knuckleball in baseball. He’s got a float serve that is pretty nasty and he can place it almost wherever we want. And he plays first-rate defense and usually makes a very positive contribution when he’s out on the court.
“And (Hollinger) has the most lethal jump serve on our squad, followed by Reese. He’s been very consistent. He’s always had it, it’s just been a consistency issue. If he can come out and put pressure on them from the service line that will certainly help.”
Class AAA — Central York vs. North Allegheny: Entering this season, the Central York players knew they were going to be very good.
It didn’t take them long to find out just how good.
In the opening tournament of the season, the Panthers traveled to the Pittsburgh area to participate in the North Allegheny Tournament. Coach Brad Livingston’s squad dropped just one game against the host school during pool play before sweeping to the tournament championship. The victory in the final was a 25-17 triumph over the Tigers.
The result of that tournament, which featured many schools ranked in the top 10, cemented Central’s status as the No. 1 team in the state in the coaches poll.
“That was the first time we played as a high school, but we all pretty much play together as a club team,” Central senior Royce Clemens said. “We had the experience of seeing ourselves against some of the best all-star teams in the state. And ever since club ball we thought we were the real deal for our high school team. We knew we were going to be tough to stop with so many weapons. But it was at the NA Tournament that we got our first perspective of just how we compared to the other top high schools in the state.”
Central also bested NA during pool play at the Koller Classic nearly two months ago. Still, Livingston isn’t giving much credence to the positive results as an indicator for what will transpire Saturday.
“A lot of times those (tournament matches) are misleading,” he said. “Because you’re only playing to 21 points and sometimes you’re only playing one game. So we’ve played them this year, but we haven’t played them in a best-of-five match. So it’s kind of a different animal. Obviously it’s good that it gives us a chance to find out a little bit about them, but they know a little bit about us too. Other than that, it’s still going to come down to what happens on Saturday.”
North Allegheny boasts a fearsome front line that features outside hitters Mitch Higgins, David Haus and Brendan Brown. Setting them up is Antonio Balouris.
Livingston knows they will present a challenge for his battle-tested club.
“Higgins and Haus are their two go-to guys,” Livingston said. “Haus had 24 kills and Higgins had 18 (vs. Hempfield in the state semifinals) but they have a big, strong kid in the middle as well named Brendan Brown. He’s an all-state player and I know he’s going away to play college ball somewhere. He works real hard in the middle and he generates a lot of blocks for them. And I know that (their coach) is particularly happy with his setter, Antonio Balouris, who has done a good job of running their offense this year.”
Setter Dylan Hose (700 assists, 32 kills, 17 aces) heads up a Central attack that gives Hose plenty of options on any play. The Panthers boast five players with more than 100 kills on the year, led by junior Jeremiah Dadeboe’s 181. Jason Gardner is a close second with 173, while Landon Shorts (156), Clemens (149) and Alex Klunk (101) round out an impressive quartet that can terminate the ball on any given swing.
“We just have to go into the match working really hard to try to make sure we pass the ball well and play good defense,” Livingston said. “Hopefully if we are able to do those things Saturday, that will generate some offense for us so we can put enough points on the board to win.”
Winning would be special for everyone on the Central squad, but probably a little bit more for Clemens, who will continue his volleyball career next season at Penn State. Clemens won a gold medal during his freshman year and is hoping to come full circle by ending with another one as a senior.
“Going to the state finals is a great experience,” Clemens said. “It’s still kind of surreal right now. And it’s great because this has been a goal we’ve all had since the off season. Each one of my teammates have been in the gym and we’ve worked toward (this). It’s our common goal and we did everything we could to get here and be as prepared as we can be.”
NOTE: Of Central’s five state titles, three have come via victories over North Allegheny in the finals.
— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at email@example.com.
Following is a list of the state championships won by the Northeastern and Central York boys’ volleyball teams:
1975 vs. Haverford (2-0)
1977 vs. Penn Hills (2-1)
1982 vs. North Allegheny (2-1)
1985 vs. North Allegheny (2-1)
2011 vs. North Allegheny (3-1)
1992 vs. Emmaus (2-0)
1993 vs. North Allegheny (2-1)
2010 vs. Meadville (3-0)
2013 vs. Ambridge (3-1)