ALTOONA — It was District Seven vs. District Three in the Class 4A girls volleyball state quarterfinals at Altoona High School on Saturday. North Allegheny and Shaler were representing the WPIAL against L-L League opponents Hempfield and Elizabethtown. Which district would come out on top to make it to the semifinals?
In the end, the Pittsburgh-area teams came out as the victors.
Shaler fought off a feisty Hempfield comeback to win 3-2, setting up a rematch against four-time defending champion North Allegheny, which topped Elizabethtown 3-0. The Titans and Tigers split their regular season games before the latter won the District Seven championship; neither team has any other losses.
“These girls have been playing a long time,” Hempfield head coach Andrew Olree said of his Black Knights. “We have a young squad but we’re led by a good group of seniors. They kept everybody calm and cool. We’re not a roller-coaster team for the most part. We just kept chugging along and grinding out points until we couldn’t anymore. Just had some bad breaks at the end.”
“I think we surpassed our expectations,” Elizabethtown interim head coach Karen Eberly said of her Bears. “I don’t think anyone looked at this team at the beginning of the season and expected to us to get this far. We literally lost to two great teams all year. It was a great season, probably the best in program history.”
The Titans came out strong against Hempfield, using a 7-1 run to take an early 9-5 lead before posting seven straight to go up 16-7. The Knights got some points back late, narrowing it to 21-17 at one point, but Shaler responded with the last four points to win 25-17. The Titans had 5 service aces in all.
Hempfield was much better in the second, grabbing an 11-7 lead with four straight. But Shaler quickly tied it up at 14-14 with a 4-0 run of its own. Both sides traded points from there, but the Titans came up in the clutch with the final two points for a 25-23 win and a 2-0 advantage.
“We were just a little bit nervous in that first set,” Olree said. “I told them to forget about it. And the second set was on us. We played great, but we also made too many mistakes, and even though we don’t like to blame the refs on anything, a couple of calls didn’t go our way.”
The Knights weren’t done yet. Down 8-4 in the third, they quickly turned things around to go up 13-10, expanding the lead out to 18-13 from there to eventually win 25-20. The fourth was tight to start, but Hempfield edged ahead 16-12 with a 4-0 run, pulling away afterward for a 25-19 win to force a fifth set.
“We told each other we could beat anybody at any time,” Olree said. “They just had to believe in themselves. We started executing the game plan that we practiced a lot better. I thought we spread the ball out well.”
Back-to-back service aces from Camille De La Torre (10 kills, 10 digs, 6 aces) briefly put the Knights up 7-5 in the final set, but Shaler answered when it mattered most; trailing 11-9, the Titans scored the next four points, two of them from Sierra Ricci’s serves. An out-of-bounds shot and a kill from Sarah Hess (10 overall) tied it back up at 13-13, but a Shaler kill and a combo block from Mia Schubert and Candace Kozej gave the Titans the victory from there.
The Black Knights end the season with a 21-1 record. They’ll be losing De La Torre, libero Allison Cummings (31 digs, 5 assists), middle Joslene Morgan (14 kills, 5 blocks) and outside Nyah Smiley (5 kills, 12 digs) to graduation, but they’ll also return Hess, setter Melody Butzer (46 assists, 20 digs, 3 aces), hitter Addison Leber (team-high 15 kills) and defensive specialist Kate Howard (12 digs) next year.
“It’s their leadership more than anything,” Olree said of his seniors. “Ali has been anchoring our defense for four years, so it’ll be tough to lose her. But we’re hungry every year. It doesn’t matter who comes walking in the doors. This is what we live for, and I feel like the girls prove it every year.”
Meanwhile, the Bears had the tough task of stopping a North Allegheny team led by setter and Ohio State commit Mia Tuman (9 kills, 23 assists), outside Ella Deeter (8 kills) and middle Jadyn Perkins (7 kills, 7 blocks). The first set was a game of runs; Elizabethtown had a 5-0 run early to take a 6-4 lead, but the Tigers readily came back with a 5-0 run of their own to go up 9-7. Runs of 6-0 and 4-0 were enough to give them a 25-15 win. The Bears were limited to just six kills in the set.
“We struggled to side out a lot,” Eberly said. “We actually had some decent passes and sets, but we didn’t do well enough getting around their blocks. We had runs where we moved the ball where it needed to be, but we’re not a big enough team to pound it through the net.”
Elizabethtown had another competitive start to the second, holding a 12-8 lead before North Allegheny ran off the next six points. Another 6-0 run from the Tigers made it game point at 24-17, though the Bears staved off defeat three times before falling 25-20. It was 10-10 in the third as well before North Allegheny put its foot on the gas, posting eight in a row to take an 18-10 lead and eventually win 25-15.
“They just had so many weapons,” Eberly said. “We try to stop one, and then they go to another. They were smart with their tips and rolls, but they had plenty of power to go around. They did what they needed to do to win.”
The Bears are losing longtime hitters Sydney Stewart (10 kills, 9 digs) and Kallee Locker (8 kills, 3 blocks), as well as setter Angela Costa-Ouimet (12 assists, 7 digs) and Anna Mowrer. But they have a big group coming back, including middle Liz Kerin, libero Paige Horst (12 digs), setter Hailey Oller (5 assists, 6 digs), outside Chloe Merkt and defensive specialist Paige O’Connell.
At 21-3, this season will go down as the best in program history for Elizabethtown.
“Nobody wants to lose seniors, especially the ones we have,” Eberly said. “But there’s a lot of talent coming back for us. We had three sophomores in the lineup all season long. We’re gonna reload. I have no doubt in my mind that Elizabethtown’s going to be a very good volleyball team these next few years.”