Knoch's transitions key to quarterfinal volleyball win over Thomas Jefferson
Not until late in the fourth game of Tuesday's WPIAL Class AA quarterfinal girls volleyball match between Knoch and Thomas Jefferson did Knights coach Diane Geist and her players begin to breathe easy.
Thomas Jefferson's fire-power along the front line has a tendency to cause such anxiety.
Knoch (16-2), the No. 6 seed in Class AA, found a solution for the Jaguars' sizeable star hitters and secured a 3-1 win at Chartiers Valley High School.
The Knights pulled out 25-22 and 25-23 wins in Game 1 and 2, but Thomas Jefferson (17-1) swung momentum back with a big run in their 25-18 win in Game 3. Knoch kept its cool and claimed Game 4, 25-19.
“I knew it wouldn't be a runaway against a team like this,” said Geist, whose Knights will play Section 4 co-champ and No. 2 seed Freeport in the semifinals 6 p.m. Thursday at North Hills. “I'm just sitting there praying on the bench the whole time. In Game 3, it was a little scary, but you just have to realize we still have the lead. I told my players, ‘They're the ones that still have the pressure on them.' ”
Knoch also qualified for the PIAA playoffs.
Junior 6-foot-1 middle and right-side hitter Rachel Stover, responsible for a match-high 18 kills, paced Thomas Jefferson's offense, which featured four girls listed at 5-foot-11 or taller.
Senior 5-11 outside/middle hitter Celina Sanks, an Eastern Kentucky recruit, led Knoch with 12 kills and six blocks, while 5-7 senior Schaely Renfrew and 5-9 senior Mary Zellhart added eight and six kills, respectively.
Thomas Jefferson actually had the biggest lead in Game 1 and 2. The Jaguars led 12-8 in the opening game, but Knoch went on its best run of the evening, a 7-1 swing, to pull ahead. And in Game 2, Thomas Jefferson had a 6-3 lead that also evaporated with a score-tying run by Knoch.
“They had a lot of great ups, and that's something we hadn't seen a lot,” Thomas Jefferson coach Ron Kelly said. “No doubt that was the best defensive team we've seen, plus they always have an out with Celina. I don't know if any other team has an out like that.
“I actually think they should've been rated a lot higher. … I expected every bit of that match.”
Thomas Jefferson's six-point run, which gave the team a 20-15 lead in Game 3, left the Jaguars with enough room for errors.
Though rarely able to run away from Thomas Jefferson, Knoch — which never led by more than five points until the score was 14-9 in Game 4 — closed out strong in each of its wins.
Senior Emily Zilka served an ace to cap Game 1, in which Knoch trailed, 20-19, before it won six of the final eight points.
Senior Savanna Steffen hit a kill to end Game 2, in which the Knights trailed, 22-20, before they won five of the final six points.
The match ended with an unforced error by Thomas Jefferson, which closed its deficit in Game 4 to 22-19 before kills by Sanks and Steffen allowed Knoch to pull away.
“We knew it'd be close,” Zellhart said. “We knew we had to push through every point, and every point mattered. That mindset really helped us.”
Knoch and Freeport split their regular-season meetings, with the Knights winning the more recent one, so their semifinal will serve as all-important rubber match.
“We knew we had to take this one match at a time,” Zellhart said, “but having that (Freeport match) in the back of our minds really pushed us to win.”