Hempfield vs North Allegheny-PIAA Girls Volleyball Semifinal

Hempfield's Emily James (21) with the hit against North Allegheny during game 3 action of a PIAA 4A Girls Volleyball semifinal match at Altoona High School Tuesday Nov. 17, 2020.

ALTOONA — For the second agonizing year in a row, Hempfield came up agonizingly short in its bid to reach the PIAA Class 4A girls volleyball state championship match.

And for the second agonizing year in a row — in the same gym no less — the Black Knights were edged out by WPIAL powerhouse North Allegheny, this time in five agonizing sets.

Super sophomore outside hitter Mia Tuman had 16 kills and 12 digs, and NA outlasted Hempfield 3-2 in a hotly contested state semifinal match Tuesday night in the venerable Altoona Field House.

Game scores were a wildly entertaining 25-18, 19-25, 25-13, 24-26 and 15-9, as the Tigers improved to 17-0 and advanced to Saturday’s PIAA finale opposite Unionville, which KO’d Parkland 3-1 in Tuesday’s other 4A final four clash.

NA, ranked No. 1 in Class 4A in the state by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association, will be angling for its fourth PIAA title in a row. The Tigers beat Hempfield 3-1 in the semifinals here last fall, and then the Knights lost seven all-star players to graduation.

“A lot of people didn’t think our team would even be back here, but they’ve been grinding all year,” Hempfield coach Andrew Olree said. “I told them that we just had to keep grinding it out with them, and that anything could happen. We took them to five, and that’s a feat in itself because I don’t think anyone has taken them to five this year. And we had a chance to win it. But that’s the breaks sometimes.”

Hempfield, ranked No. 4 in the state in Class 4A by the PVCA coming into Tuesday’s match, finished up 17-1 overall, with Lancaster-Lebanon League and District Three championship gold trophies in the case. The Knights rallied valiantly for a 3-2 victory over State College in the state quarterfinals last week to set up their semifinal rematch against NA.

Coach Heidi Miller’s Tigers roared early, sailing to a 25-18 first-set win; NA never trailed, and Tuman set the tone with six kills, including a spike that capped a 4-0 run to give the Tigers a 21-12 cushion after Hempfield won six straight points to get NA’s attention.

Camille De La Torre (13 kills, 3 blocks) keyed the Knights’ second-set win, getting back-to-back kills to give Hempfield a safe and sound 24-19 edge. Earlier in the second, Joslene Morgan (11 kills, 4 blocks) had a block and a kill and Emily James (12 kills, 3 blocks) had two key winners, helping the Knights stretch their lead.

Emma Bitner dished off 44 assists and Allison Cummings, the L-L League Section One MVP, was superb defensively with 19 digs and countless must-have service returns for Hempfield.

NA never trailed in the third game, with Tuman, Jadyn Perkins (14 kills, 6 blocks) and Madison Beer (6 kills) all doing damage at the net. Perkins and Beer had back-to-back spikes to close out the third game for a 2-1 lead for the Tigers.

Undaunted, Hempfield earned a gut-check 26-24 win in the fourth to force a fifth and deciding game. Tuman’s kill knotted the fourth set at 23-23, but De La Torre answered with a smash and the Knights were up 24-23.

Tuman’s kill knotted it again, but Hempfield closed it out on a hitting error, and then James won it with a kill and the team’s danced off to the fifth with a spot in the state finals hanging in the balance.

NA never trailed in the fifth; Perkins and Paige Miller (6 kills, 15 digs) had clutch points, and Tuman’s perfectly placed drop shot put the Tigers up 14-9, and that was that. Caroline Curran sparked the Tigers’ defensive effort with 20 digs, as NA punched its ticket to Saturday’s finale vs. Unionville at Cumberland Valley in Mechanicsburg at 6 p.m.

For Hempfield, it was the closest of calls. But the Knights came up agonizingly short.

“Our girls never gave up, and I’m most proud of how they fought until the very end,” Olree said. “They very easily could have thrown in the towel, but they came back and stuck it to them and pushed them to five. There was so much adversity for everyone this season, so for our kids to keep pushing through it and get here, I’m really proud of them.”

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