By Pete Chiodo
“This felt like a state championship match right here,” said Fort LeBoeuf head coach Leann Johnson. “This match was just so intense. It felt like these were two really, really great caliber teams. And they were both coming out of District 10. That says a lot for volleyball in this area.”
That just about sums it up. Fort LeBoeuf and Conneaut squared off in a white-knuckler of a PIAA Class AA semifinal match on Tuesday night at Meadville High School’s House of Thrills.
In the end, it was LeBoeuf moving on, defeating the CASH Eagles in three hard-fought games 25-22, 27-25, 25-23.
“That was a great match,” said Conneaut head coach Tim Schleicher. “It was a tremendous season, an absolutely tremendous season. I told them that in the end — ‘You battled hard the whole time.’ ... You can’t ask for anything better than that. A play or two down the stretch and we convert, maybe it’s a different match.”
The Eagles end the season with a record of 17-2.
“Where we’ve come in two years, making the state semifinals, this group of seniors has really come together and created a program,” said Schleicher. “That’s the legacy for these kids. No team has worked harder and I’m just tremendously proud of them.”
Fort LeBoeuf, meanwhile, continues its hunt for a second-straight state championship. The Bison (19-1) will take on Delone Catholic in the Class AA final scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m. at Central York High School. Delone swept Lansdale Catholic during yesterday’s other semifinal.
Johnson is hoping that whatever got into her squad last night will appear once again on Saturday.
“They played well,” she said. “And I wish I knew the secrets to that. I wish I knew what switch to flip to make that happen. Because that doesn’t always happen, but that’s the name of the game — controlling unforced errors and being consistent. But it’s like a borderline; you can be consistent and be safe or you can be consistent and be aggressive. And we found that line tonight.”
Johnson also acknowledged that the memory of the loss to Conneaut in the District 10 championship match on Nov. 2 helped to spur her team’s performance last night.
“I agree,” she said. “It enabled us to get up for this game. We wanted it more because we were on the other side of the court. You want it already because it’s the state semifinals and that’s a gimme. But because it was who it was, it adds that extra incentive.”
It was easy to see that incentive at work as the Bison took on the aggressor role at the net, putting down spikes, positioning numerous second-touch tips and putting up some demoralizing blocks against Conneaut’s hitters.
“(LeBoeuf) played great at the net,” said Schleicher. “They did a nice job on defense. They were just real clean. I think we just made more errors than they did. And they capitalized on them. You can’t do that against any team, but especially not a really, really good one like Fort LeBoeuf.”
It all started with the serve, said Johnson.
“We were able to get those blocks and those things because our servers were very aggressive and it kept their passers off the net. And when that happens the defense has an easier job.”
It often ended, however, with LeBoeuf’s junior outside hitter Larissa Cass who was almost automatic coming out of the corner and putting down a spike or a well-crafted tip. She ended the night with 16 kills.
“I told my setter: ‘Feed (Cass) the ball!’” said Johnson. “(Cass) has been growing steadily and has really taken some leaps and bounds going into this school year. She’s played her freshman and sophomore year at states every year behind Maria Peluso. (Peluso) was our No. 1 outside hitter. Now Larissa is that outside hitter No. 1. She’s just coming through. She’s producing when we need her to.”
LeBoeuf’s other big hitter, sophomore Kaylee Fucci, had 10 kills. Senior middle Jolene Young added six kills, including the final two of Game 3 to seal up the match for the Bison.
Together they were able to overcome late Conneaut leads in all three games. The Eagles led 22-21 in Game 1 before LeBoeuf scored four straight points to win it.
In Game 2, Conneaut again had the edge at 22-21, but LeBoeuf scored three straight to take game point at 24-22. Conneaut battled back to tie it at 24-24 and 25-25, but a net violation by Conneaut and a quick tip by setter Abby Rose secured the win for LeBoeuf.
Conneaut also led for much of the third game. And once again, Conneaut led late 22-21. However, LeBoeuf won four of the next five serves to pull it out.
“They came out and played a very clean, aggressive match,” said Schleicher. “They were just a couple points better than us, and that was the difference.”
Leading Conneaut was Challen Litwiler with 15 kills and 16 digs. Kristen Baker had 11 kills and 14 digs. Kim Litwin added 13 digs. Kristen Laird had eight. Aliya Hutman recorded 30 assists with five digs.