Ambridge, North Allegheny defend WPIAL volleyball championships
When Ambridge's volleyball team gathered for its championship photo, the shorter players stood in front and the taller players moved toward the back.
It was fairly typical, except that the back row was awfully crowded.
With three starters who measure between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6, Ambridge used its exceptional height to control the middle in Thursday's 3-0 victory over Derry in the WPIAL Class AA championship at Baldwin.
It was the second consecutive title for the No. 1 Bridgers and their fifth title in six years.
“With our height and just our strength ... we look pretty large out there,” said junior Lee Smith, who was named the WPIAL's Class AA most valuable player. “Teams are kind of scared.”
No. 2 Derry understood the challenge, having also lost to Ambridge in last season's championship. But unlike that 3-2 victory, the Bridgers swept this best-of-five series, 25-17, 25-18 and 25-19.
Smith, who had 21 kills, sealed the third with a strong crosscourt shot.
“We had to execute to the best of our ability to have a chance,” Derry coach Shawn Spencer said. “At times tonight we did, but the moments when we didn't hurt us really bad.”
Both teams advance to the PIAA playoffs, along with third-place OLSH, a 3-0 winner over Beaver County Christian (26-24, 25-21, 27-25).
With Smith (6-5) and junior hitter Brandon Buck (6-4), Ambridge had size back from last year's roster. The addition of 6-6 senior Trent Munk made them likely the tallest lineup in Class AA. Buck had nine kills and Munk had six.
Together, they're also probably the tallest lineup in Ambridge history, coach Glen Freed said.
“I've seen teams tip a lot more once they get blocked a couple times,” said junior setter Aaron Mueller, who had 41 assists in his second game since spraining his MCL in the season finale. “Our block is really big.”
Derry's tallest starters were 6-4. To counter Ambridge's middle-of-the-net height, the Trojans needed to serve and pass well, Spencer said, but they just weren't consistent enough.
“We can do some things to hold their middles in place and give our hitters some seams and areas to hit the ball,” Spencer said. “When we did that we had success. But when they know where the ball is going to be set, they're able to load up on you and their height becomes a huge factor.”
This was a much different Derry team than faced Ambridge a season ago. Eleven seniors graduated from that runner-up lineup. Junior hitter Matt Vasinko led Thursday with 14 kills, senior Josh Wannamaker had nine and Ian Malis had seven. Andy Pannizi had 33 assists.
“It's a very good accomplishment to be able to get back to this point with an inexperienced team,” Spencer said. “That's a credit to them.”
Among Class AAA champions, North Allegheny remained perfect. A 15-8 Game 5 victory gave North Allegheny a 3-2 win Thursday in the WPIAL title game, earning the Tigers their seventh consecutive league crown.
Since boys volleyball was divided into two classifications in 2007, North Allegheny has won all seven Class AAA titles.
“This title was definitely the best one,” North Allegheny senior Tommy Keisling said. “For us to get it in five, I'm just so proud of everyone. You never knew who was getting set, everyone was putting balls away. Everyone was passing well. It was just a great team effort.”
In none of the previous six championship victories had NA's opponent won more than one game. The Tigers beat Norwin, 3-0, in last year's championship.
This time, though, there was uncertainty when Bethel Park won Game 4 (25-21) to force a 2-2 tie. North Allegheny had won Games 1 (25-17) and 3 (25-9). Bethel Park won Game 2 (25-21).
“We have heart,” Bethel Park coach Tom Allman said. “We didn't play well in the third. We kind of got our heads down, but our assistant coach gave a nice speech in between the third and fourth match and got us fired up.”
But that momentum didn't carry into the fifth as NA built a 7-1 lead. The gap closed to three, 11-8, before the Tigers finished with a 4-0 run.
“After Game 3, we'd beat them by a lot, so I think a lot of us thought that the next one would come easy,” Keisling said. “But they kind of punched us in the face back. In the fifth game, we weren't letting that happen again.”
This was North Allegheny's 16th WPIAL boys volleyball title, and the program's 10th in the past 11 years.
Norwin won the AAA consolation over Penn-Trafford, 3-2, to reach the state playoffs.