Knoch, Freeport to settle volleyball series
Through social media and other means, Knoch's girls volleyball players kept track of Freeport's WPIAL Class AA quarterfinal-round match against Central Valley at Fox Chapel High School as they waited for their own quarterfinal against Thomas Jefferson to start Tuesday night at Chartiers Valley.
Freeport's match began at 6 p.m., while Knoch's was scheduled to commence at 7:30 p.m., so the Knights figured they had time to learn if they'd meet their Section 4 rival in the semifinals.
“They were kind of listening, and they heard Freeport dropped the first game, so they weren't sure who'd won” before warm-ups started, Knoch coach Diane Geist said. “But we figured Freeport would probably win.”
Knoch figured correctly, as the No. 2 seed Yellowjackets (16-1) defeated Central Valley, 3-1. And the No.6 Knights (16-2), careful to not look past their own quarterfinal opponent, topped No. 3 Thomas Jefferson, 3-1.
Now comes the much-anticipated third encounter between the section co-champs. Freeport and Knoch, which won the more recent of their two regular-season matches, will clash in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Thursday at North Hills.
The Yellowjackets are in the semifinals for the fourth time in five years.
“It's great for people to have high expectations for you and think you can go far,” sophomore outside/middle hitter Zoe Pawlak said of Freeport's annual title aspirations. “We try to take that and use it as confidence.”
The Knights are semifinalists for the first time since 2003, when they ultimately reached the WPIAL finals.
“We started playing together in seventh grade, this group of seniors, and we knew our senior season would be our year,” Knoch senior middle hitter Mary Zellhart said. “We've wanted to make this happen so bad, and all of our desire and passion is pouring out on the court now.”
Regardless of Thursday's outcome, both teams advance to the PIAA tournament. The winner will meet either No. 1 Indiana or No. 4 Hopewell at 4:15 p.m. Saturday in the championship match.
Freeport beat Knoch, 3-0, when the teams met Sept. 10. In the rematch on Oct. 3, the Knights prevailed, 3-2, with wins in Game 1 (25-21), Game 4 (26-24) and Game 5 (15-12). The Yellowjackets, who squandered match point in Game 4, claimed Games 2 and 3, 27-25 and 25-20.
“I think (the second time), the girls were pumped up and wanted it more,” Geist said of her players. “We'd seen them play and knew what they were going to do, so we adjusted for that. And it was still a really difficult game, even knowing what they were going to do to us.”
Rarely were the two teams tested in matches during the weeks since that rematch. Tuesday served as an effective tune-up for Thursday, though, as both teams encountered challenging opposition.
Freeport needed to rally after losing its first game against Central Valley, 25-12.
“I think my setters were a little tentative and were afraid of the big block out there, our coverage wasn't there, and it wasn't really one of our stellar performances,” Freeport coach Tom Phillips. “As the night went on, we got better.”
The Knights needed to calm their nerves after a 25-18 loss to Thomas Jefferson in Game 3.
“We did get a little out of sorts (in Game 3),” Zellhart said. “We got in one rotation we just couldn't get out of. Our coach said we just thought too much. We just needed to play the game and play with confidence.”
Anything less than another nail-biter would surprise both sides of this Butler County clash.
“It'll definitely be a tough game,” Geist said, “because we beat them the last time, so they're going to be out for us.”