By Lisa Byers
Cochranton rolled through the District 10 tournament thanks to precise passing and a relentless offensive attack. But on Wednesday, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart forced the Cardinals to go back to what has made them a quality program year-in and year-out: Defense.
The Cardinals picked up some big blocks and momentum-changing digs on their way to an electrifying 24-26, 25-15, 23-25, 25-19, 15-9 win over OLSH in the opening round of the PIAA Class AA boys volleyball championships at Meadville Area Senior High School’s House of Thrills.
Cochranton improved to 14-1 and advances to the quarterfinals where it will meet Ambridge, a 25-21, 25-23, 25-20 winner over District 10 runner-up Saegertown, on Saturday at a site and time to be determined.
OLSH was making its second straight appearance at the House of Thrills for the opening round of states. Last year, the Chargers faced Saegertown and gave up two 24-21 leads in a 25-14, 26-24, 26-24 sweep to the Panthers. They weren’t about to let history repeat itself.
Instead, the Chargers, in just their second appearance in the state tournament ever and just two players with four years of experience, made sure to take care of business from the get-go, forcing the Cardinals to play on their heals and turn to their bread-and-butter … Defense.
“This is a hard swinging team, probably the hardest swinging team we’ve seen all season,” Cochranton head coach Brad Custead said. “Defense just tired them out. We were relentlessly bringing the ball back up and that just frustrated them and they were either hitting the ball out of bounds or into the net.
“But that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to play defense. And what Cochranton has always been known for is playing good defense, and we did it (last night).”
And they played that stellar defense when they needed it most: In Game 4, down 9-8 and already trailing two sets to one.
With some outstanding digs to keep plays alive, the Cardinals, with a boisterous crowd behind them, were able to rally back and take a 16-11 lead in that fourth set. OLSH did rally back and to close to within two (18-16). But then came one of the defensive plays of the night, when Logan Herzberger dove from out of nowhere to dig up a ball and put it up to the net for Nick Dickson to hammer home for a 20-16 advantage.
Herzberger turned to his offense to cap the 25-19 win and force a fifth and deciding set.
“They had a lot of big hitters,” Cochranton senior outside hitter Josh Vanderhoof said. “They could pretty much hit the ball wherever they wanted to. We had to focus on getting blocks up and getting our backrow defense in the right spots so we could get digs. I think that’s really where our motivation really started.”
OLSH didn’t let the Cardinals hold that momentum too long. The Chargers opened the fifth set with a 3-1 lead. Defense, again, prevailed, though, as the Cardinals rallied back to tie it at 4-4. That’s when the Cardinals’ offense stepped it up, namely Chad Eisenhooth.
Eisenhooth finished with five of his team-high 18 kills down the stretch.
“A No. 3 and a No. 1 … I expected a four- or five-game match,” OLSH coach Mike McDonald said. “I thought we were pretty even. The difference is I think they served us a little harder and cause us to not pass the ball at moments and they were able to take those plays.
“We had trouble blocking on the outside. But, overall, it was a competitive match. People got their money’s worth.”
Herzberger paced the Cardinals’ defense with 13 digs and five blocks to go along with his 16 kills. Vanderhoof added 11 digs, eight blocks and eight kills. Eisenhooth also had 11 digs. Connor Staudt, who picked up a block off his forehead, had seven blocks and seven kills.
For the Chargers, Shaughn McDonald had 27 kills and 24 digs. Ian Alexander dished out 49 assists. Colin Neville and Nick Metz had two blocks each.
Next up for the Cardinals are the Bridgers, the No. 1 ranked team in the state in Class AA in the latest Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association’s Top 10 Poll.
“They have a tall task,” McDonald said of the Cardinals. “Either one of us would have had a tall task. But they get to play another day. We would have liked to be in their spot.
“Hats off to them. They played really hard to fight their way back.”