Knoch, Freeport volleyball series had plenty of drama
WPIAL section realignment brought the Freeport and Knoch girls volleyball programs together two years ago. It also helped to form one of the most heated and competitive rivalries in Class AA.
Known for having successful teams year in and year out, Freeport swept the season series with Knoch last year, but this year a different chapter was written in the rivalry.
Freeport took the first meeting in dominating fashion, winning 3-0 at home. Knoch, however, promptly answered when Freeport traveled to Knoch later in the year, securing a thrilling 3-2 victory.
Led by Eastern Kentucky University recruit Celina Sanks, Knoch was able to share the Section 4-AA title with Freeport and later grab a No. 6 seed in the WPIAL playoffs. Freeport was No. 2 but went on to win its second WPIAL title.
“I'm happy to see Celina graduate,” Freeport coach Tom Phillips said jokingly. “The last couple of years she's been the main cause for Knoch. I wish her well, but I'll be happy to walk into the gym and not see her playing against me.”
When the playoff brackets were released, there was a strong possibility that Freeport and Knoch could meet a third time. And they did. Poised not to let Knoch, well, knock them out of the playoffs, the Yellowjackets came out on top, 3-2, in the semifinals.
“I think we exerted a lot of energy to win our quarterfinal game against Thomas Jefferson,” Knoch coach Diane Geist said. “We weren't quite as strong as we needed to be. Even so, we took the second and third games. In the fourth game, we showed a crack and Freeport picked up on it.”
Phillips and his team didn't let the thought of facing Knoch in the semifinals go unnoticed. The intensity and energy got a lot stronger for Freeport.
“I knew that Thomas Jefferson was a good team,” Phillips said. Obviously, TJ was a No. 3 seed, they had been strong all year. I felt that Knoch was a better team. I wasn't surprised to see Knoch beat them.”
Freeport and Knoch didn't get a chance to meet in the state playoffs, however. Knoch fell in the PIAA first round, and Freeport was ousted in the quarterfinals.
The rivalry also has a psychological side to it. At first, it seemed like Freeport could be heading down the same path as last year's team when it got caught looking ahead to potentially facing section foe Mars, and lost to Ambridge. Freeport was determined not to let that happen again.
“People wanted to talk with me way before it happened,” Phillips said. “People wanted to talk about the potential of a rematch. I tried to maintain our focus so we didn't look ahead.”
The students from each school even got involved in the rivalry. Each school's student section packed the stands at their respective home courts.
Knoch will be losing a lot of leadership next year as it will graduate 10 seniors. Despite that fact, Geist hopes that Knoch and Freeport remain section foes during the next WPIAL realignment.
“Every year is different, and you go through cycles,” Geist said. “We just happened to have this group that's been together since middle school. It's tough to lose that group. It will be tough next year. Our goals next year will be different than our goals this year.”
D.J. Vasil is a freelance writer.