By Lisa Byers
SLIPPERY ROCK —
The Conneaut girls volleyball team was huddled together in front of its bench when members suddenly broke into an impromptu danceoff to MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.”
With minutes left until organized warmups were set to begin, it was a way for the Lady Eagles to let loose and calm some nerves for one of the biggest volleyball matches of many of their careers.
It was also a fine way to draw attention to a song that later wound up being quite symbolic.
In a matchup involving four of the premier outside hitters in the state, it was Conneaut that laid down the final hammer as the Eagles beat Indiana 25-18, 23-25, 25-19, 26-24 in an epic PIAA Class AA quarterfinals at Slippery Rock High School.
The Eagles (17-1) advance to the semifinals where they meet defending state champion Fort LeBoeuf in a rematch of the District 10 championship match. That match is 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Meadville High School.
“It was super intense,” Conneaut libero Kim Litwin said. “I don’t think there was one point where you weren’t like, ‘Just calm down and play.’”
That emotion was created by Conneaut’s Challen Litwiler and Kristen Baker and Indiana’s fab duo of Aaryn Gray and Natalie Cignetti, who electrified the crowd with one thunderous kill attempt after another. And many of those attempts were met by ridiculous digs and loud blocks that had some rallies lasting for what seemed like minutes.
“I can’t believe some of those volleys,” Indiana coach Malinda Oesterling said. “You’re sitting there on the sidelines as a coach and you’re going, ‘Oh, oh, oh, oh.’ It was great. It was a fantastic match.
“I can’t come away and say it was anything that my team did. We tried. It was a hardfought battle all the way around. Two good teams and it was a lot of fun.”
In the end, though, there is a winner and a team that continues its quest for state gold. Conneaut just so happened to make more plays in the end.
Game 2 is where the real battle began.
Conneaut had relatively little trouble in the first set. But in the second set Indiana, namely Cignetti and Gray, got hot.
Conneaut had a 10-5 lead in that set when the Little Indians went on a 5-0 run to tie it up. The Eagles reassumed the lead on a kill by Litwiler, but after a handful of hitting errors the Indians went up 18-15. Cignetti and Gray finished it off to even the match at a set apiece.
Game 3 also featured a few classic plays. But, again, once Conneaut got a lead the Eagles were never really in trouble. Then there was Game 4.
Indiana (18-2) was determined to send the match to a fifth and deciding set and had as much as a six-point lead in the fourth game. The Eagles cut into that deficit a bit at a time but were unable to sustain a run until late.
It was a kill by Megan Thomas that ricocheted off the rafters that got things going for the Eagles. That kill pulled the Eagles to within one (19-18). Angie Vickers followed with a block and Litwiler delivered a punishing kill to put the Eagles up 20-19.
But each time the Eagles took the advantage, Cignetti answered for Indiana. It looked like in the end, though, it was going to be Gray saving the day.
Cignetti, who stifled the Eagles all night long with her powerful jump serve, stayed on her feet for the serve with the Indians up 23-22. The serve sailed long and the Eagles pulled into a 23-23 tie.
Gray picked up her teammate on the next play with a kill to put the Indians just a point away from a Game 5.
The Eagles weren’t finished. Litwiler tallied her 26th kill of the match to tie it up at 24-24, and the Eagles took the lead on an attack error. The final hammer came on Litwiler’s serve, an ace that gave the Eagles a 26-24 win and the match.
“It was a phenomenal match,” Conneaut coach Tim Schleicher said. “They’re a great team. They’re digging balls, being aggressive, finding the places to attack. That’s a well-coached team and a team full of athletes. And you’re one of eight teams left in the state, that’s how it’s going to be.
“I thought we weathered through it and got back to what we’ve been doing all year to help seal the victory.”
Defensively, the Eagles were outstanding. Litwiler led the team with 27 digs. Baker followed with 24 and Litwin tallied 23. On blocks, Baker had five and Litwiler had four. Offensively, Litwiler finished with a match-high 26 kills. Baker added 18.
Aliya Hutman set everything up with 46 assists.
For the Indians, Cignetti had 17 kills and Gray 13.
Next up, Fort LeBoeuf.
Fort LeBoeuf beat Freeport 25-17, 25-13, 25-22 Saturday morning at Slippery Rock High School to earn its spot in the semifinals.
Kaylee Fucci led the Bison with 11 kills. Jolene Young added 10 kills followed by Larissa Cass with nine and Abby Rose with six. Rose also had 29 assists. Courtney Oberlander had 12 digs.
“It would be great for District 10 to have that situation,” Fort LeBoeuf coach LeAnn Johnson said following the Bison’s win and prior to the Conneaut-Indiana showdown. “Even though that brings a lot of attention to us.
“I’m kind of tired of the attention. I liked being the obsolete Fort LeBoeuf that nobody knew of. Whose this Fort ‘LeBoof’? Who are you? I liked those days. That was way better.”