Steel Valley halts Thomas Jefferson's postseason bid
Steel Valley didn't need to beat Thomas Jefferson when the two teams squared off Tuesday for their regular-season finale.
Not only had the Ironmen already clinched the fourth and final WPIAL Class AA playoff spot out of Section 3, they were locked into that spot win or lose.
For the Jaguars, however, a victory meant everything. A win would move them into a tie with Steel Valley and extend their campaign with a slot in the postseason.
In the end, though, desperation wasn't enough, as Steel Valley (4-6) came from behind for a dramatic 3-2 (25-19, 23-25, 19-25, 25-15, 15-13) win that eliminated the Jaguars from postseason contention.
“We're a young team and we're making simple mistakes,” Thomas Jefferson coach Frank Staffen said. “They're basically all first-year players and it's just a matter of concentration. Volleyball is a game of momentum and we just lost the momentum.”
In the deciding fifth game, senior outside hitters Nate Labishak and Zack Graham each had three kills to help propel the Ironmen attack. Labishak was also pivotal to the team's comeback from an early deficit in the fourth game.
“I decided in that fourth game that I was going to move Zack to a middle position and keep Nate at the middle as well,” Steel Valley coach JaQuan McNeil said. “With those two both hitting middles, it works well.”
Neither team truly dominated the other as both attacks were replete with service errors, unforced errors, plays into the net and general miscues that kept the match close. Steel Valley was initially able to limit its mistakes as the first game wore on, but after the Jaguars rallied to take a 2-1 lead, the Ironmen were able to come back and win their second five-set meeting between the two schools.
Graham was instrumental in the team taking control in the early part of the match as he had five of the Ironmen's seven kills in their Game 1 win. But junior middle hitter Adam Miller and sophomore middle hitter Ben Miscavage and the team's lone senior, outside hitter Connor Kooyer, were able to turn the tide at the net with several critical kills to help Thomas Jefferson reload and take the lead after the third game.
“It seems like this season we've been a comeback team for most of the year,” McNeil said. “We win games and I'm okay with that.”
Now, Steel Valley will have to build off this match and get ready for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs, which are slated to open May 15. Because they finished in fourth place and won't play a team from their own section, they will likely have a tough postseason opener against one of the top seeds in the tournament, which would mean either Ambridge, ranked No. 3 in the state by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches' Association, or No. 9 Deer Lakes.
“Teams like that, you have to make sure your middle hitters hit and you have someone outside blocking,” McNeil said. “They come with so many combinations that we have to work on every aspect of the game of volleyball.”
Keith Barnes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-664-9161 Ext. 1977.