PETE CHIODO/Meadville Tribune
The Knoch girls volleyball team may have a Division I player in high-jumping senior Celina Sanks. But Conneaut has a couple hard-cranking hitters of its own. And on Tuesday night the Eagles’ spikers were just as effective from the back row as they were in the front as they ousted the Knights 25-23, 25-12, 25-22 in the opening round of the PIAA Class AA playoffs at Cochranton High School.
“(Conneaut was) a little more balanced in their attack than we were,” said Knoch head coach Diane Geist. “They have two strong outside hitters and a very good defense. And they didn’t make too many errors. That was the key. We made more errors and I knew it was going to come down to that.”
Conneaut now moves on to the state quarterfinal round where it will face WPIAL runner-up Indiana, which swept District 6 champion Philipsburg-Osceola last night. The site and time for the match will be announced later.
“We were hitting really well in the back row,” said Conneaut head coach Tim Schleicher. “They were taking really good swings back there. I think that was the best we’ve looked in the back row all season.
“Now, it would be nice if we passed a little better so we can attack from the front row too,” he added
Conneaut senior Kristen Baker led the team with 17 kills. And about a third of them were issued from the rear of the court. Her first couple tries from the back found the floor on Knoch’s side. So setter Aliya Hutman — who had 35 assists — kept feeding chances to her.
“I just attacked from the back row really well today,” said Baker. “It just worked out. And Aliya had some great sets.”
Challen Litwiler also had a big night for the Eagles on offense with 16 kills. And together, her and Baker were more than enough to overcome Knoch and its Eastern Kentucky recruit Sanks, who finished the night with 15 kills, well off her average of 20 or more per match.
“She can hit the ball,” said Baker. “She’s a very nice hitter. We had to find a way to stop her.”
It took a little time to slow down Sanks and her well-drilling shots. In fact she was most effective in the opening game, ripping eight of her 15 kills. And led by that effort, the Knights were able to hold a few leads over CASH. The biggest of those leads was at 16-13. But the Knights also led late 22-20 and 23-22.
However, Conneaut was able to shake off a little bit of its state playoff jitters, get control of the ball, and reclaim the momentum. Litwiler was particularly effective down the stretch, scoring five of the Eagles’ last six points, including two in a row that put CASH at game point, 24-23.
Allison Snider then laid down the winner to give the Eagles a game advantage.
“Winning Game 1 was huge,” said Schleicher. “They did regroup. We needed to come back a little bit. We didn’t have out best match. But they fought through it.”
CASH then rolled in the second game, 25-12. The defense finally seemed to figure out Sanks. Angie Vickers was big at the net with five blocks. Litwiler finished the night with three. And in the back row, Kim Litwin brought up a whopping 17 digs. Litwiler had 11, Kristen Laird had nine, Baker had eight and Hutman five.
“Our right sides did a really nice job on defense,” said Schleicher. “We knew (Knoch) was strong in the middle. So our right backs were going to be busy. ... Litwin did a tremendous job on defense. She seems to be reading the ball really well and she is getting good at staying one step ahead.”
Knoch didn’t roll over, however. The Knights found different hitters to pass the ball to and those girls managed to make the third game a close one. Knoch, in fact, led 7-4 early. But they never had enough to completely overtake Conneaut and its momentum. Those errors that Geist mentioned began to flair up.
“And we finished, which was good,” said Schleicher.