North Allegheny, Ambridge seek PIAA volleyball glory
Brendan Brown can tell something changed with the North Allegheny boys volleyball team.
The senior middle blocker doesn't know exactly why or how, but the Tigers have been able to consistently find another gear since a 3-2 loss at Seneca Valley on May 6.
“That opened our eyes a little bit,” the 6-foot-5 Brown said. “We knew we had to come out and play our game.”
As a result of the eight matches that followed — all wins — North Allegheny earned the right to try for back-to-back PIAA Class AAA titles at 1 p.m. Saturday when it takes on Central York at Penn State's Rec Hall.
North Allegheny is one of two WPIAL teams playing for a state title. Ambridge faces a rematch with Northeastern, also the No. 1 seed out of District 3, at 11 a.m.. Northeastern topped the Bridgers, 3-1, in last year's PIAA Class AA final.
Not that he's taking credit for it — or, at this point, probably even cares — but North Allegheny coach Dan Schall predicted losing to Seneca Valley would serve as a turning point in the season.
“I told the guys at that moment, ‘This could be the most important day of the year for us.' ” Schall said. “Often it reawakens you.”
The reawakening truly began three nights later with a five-set win over Ambridge, an emotional match that saw the Tigers win the first set 29-27, lose the next two, then rally in the fourth and fifth, winning the fifth 15-13.
Like they have all season, North Allegheny's four All-WPIAL seniors shined. Outside hitters Mitch Higgins and David Haus had 20-plus kills apiece. Setter Antonio Balouris finished with 62 assists. Brown had 11 kills and four blocks.
“The core nucleus of the team,” Schall called them.
The turn-on-a-dime habits continued Tuesday in the PIAA semifinals, as North Allegheny rallied from two sets down to defeat District 3's Hempfield.
Haus and Higgins lead North Allegheny (21-1) with 447 kills. Balouris has 1,251 assists. Brown leads with 153 blocks, and junior defensive specialist Ethan DeRubbo has a team-high 294 digs.
Saturday will be North Allegheny's 14th state championship appearance. The Tigers previously won PIAA titles in 1979, 1987, 1991, 1999 and 2013.
Like North Allegheny, Ambridge (13-1) has a deep and talented group of seniors. The seven-player group includes outside hitters Lee Smith and Brandon Buck; right-side hitter Dan Zajac; setter Aaron Mueller; middle hitters Logan Campbell and Shawn Butter; and defensive specialist Luke Fritz.
Experience is not lost on the group. Especially Butter, who admitted the Bridgers were a little cocky coming off their fifth WPIAL title in six years — it's six in seven now — and wound up struggling against Northeastern.
“When we came into the final last year, we were pretty cocky about it,” Butter said. “We thought we were unstoppable. They showed us that they were there to play. Obviously, they were a little more prepared than we were. This year, we want to try and do the same with them. We want to show them that we're a better team this year and have a lot more fight in us.”
This marks the fourth time in seven years Ambridge has reached the PIAA final. The Bridgers, who finished second in 2008 and 2013, won the only PIAA title in program history in 2009.
“It's a great group of seniors,” Ambridge coach Glenn Freed said. “They're such hard workers. They're good friends off the court, which definitely helps them on the court. The whole situation is great with this core group of guys that I have.”