SLIPPERY ROCK — The Meadville Bulldogs just know how to close a match. Holding a slim 20-19 lead in the fourth set, the Bulldogs stormed forward and won five of the last seven points to knock off Ambridge.
The final point had Meadville returning serve. The Bulldogs faithful shouted in unison for each play of the ball. “D” “O” “G” and “S” on the final slam by Aiden Miller. The ball bounced off the gym floor and Meadville erupted in celebration.
“It’s awesome. It’s fantastic,” said Meadville head coach Nick Bancroft. “These guys came in and worked really hard. Since Oct. 1, our first open gym, it’s been no looking back since then.”
On Tuesday night at Slippery Rock High School, Meadville beat Ambridge 25-20, 18-25, 25-21, 25-21 in the PIAA Class 2A semifinals. Meadville advances to the state championship on Saturday where it will face York Suburban at Penn State University’s Pegula Ice Arena.
“The community really backs us even though nobody really cares about volleyball,” laughed Meadville middle hitter Tucker Watson. “But it seems like with this run, everybody’s coming with us and it’s really awesome to just see fans and everyone getting excited for us.”
There’s a lot to like about this Meadville team. The energy on defense is abundant. There’s heavy hitters like Miller and Watson. The Bulldogs have an enthusiasm that’s infectious. They needed all of that and more to best Ambridge.
“We’re a scrappy team and we have heart,” said Miller.
The Bulldogs started off strong in the opening set due to some miscues from the Bridgers.
Overall, Ambridge committed nine errors in the first set and Meadville took a 24-20 lead. Miller slammed the set winner. The Bridgers’ dig attempt flew wide and the ’Dogs took the opener.
“They had a lot of errors and we knew they weren’t going to play like that in the second set,” Watson said.
He was right, of course. Ambridge went to its big hitter, Liam Buck, in the second set and he stepped up.
Buck sprinkled six kills and an ace throughout a pretty convincing set for the Bridgers. Meadville only led for a total of four points and it was all square at 1-1.
Ambridge rolled the momemtum into the third set. Buck blasted a kill from the back row to give the Bridgers a 9-5 lead. Everything seemed to be going in favor of Ambridge. But as they’ve done so often before, the Bulldogs flipped the switch.
“That’s been the story for the whole playoffs for us,” said Bancroft. “Our guys, we get down a little bit, but we don’t ever stop.”
Meadville then went on a 9-1 run which turned out to be the turning point. Paul Leech had a first shot kill and a block. Miller tallied four kills in the run.
From there, the ’Dogs never relinquished the lead. Miller had a soft floater over the block to put Meadville up 23-19 and Meadville closed it out when Buck’s save attempt fell wide.
“It was a battle. I think (Ambridge) did OK in our gameplan, not complete in our gameplan,” said Ambridge head coach Glenn Freed. “But (Meadville) kept pushing us, so they did a great job.”
The fourth set epitomized the battle-like atmosphere of the match. Neither team gave an inch. Eventually Meadville took a 14-12 lead after kills from Watson and Miller. That lead was big enough for Freed to regroup his team with a timeout.
The Bulldogs kept the pressure on with a big kill from Miller after some strong defensive digs.
“We just had to keep fighting and scrapping and get some touches on the ball and keep firing it back at them,” said Bancroft.
Ambridge worked back to 20-19, but once again Meadville made the big play to turn the tide. Ambridge was poised for a big kill, but Mark Conrad denied it with a two-handed block to make it 21-19. A Bridgers’ error increased it to 22-19.
Up 24-20, Meadville nearly closed it out, but a clutch dig by Kevin Rotthoff and a kill from Buck kept Ambridge alive for another point. Buck ended the game with 26 kills and two aces. Rotthoff led the Bridgers with eight digs.
Miller’s kill sealed the Bulldogs’ win and the state championship berth. He led the Bulldogs with 30 kills. He added 13 digs and three blocks.
“(Miller’s) a beast. He flies. He skies. He has no fear at the net,” said Bancroft. “He’s just going to go up for the ball. He sees the court well and finds the open holes and lets it rip.”
The rest of the Bulldogs made major contributions as well, which is the usual recipe for Meadville. Watson had nine kills and two blocks. Julian Jones added nine kills and nine digs. Paul Leech had 49 assists and seven digs. Conrad popped up 22 digs and buried five kills.
“We faced adversity. I think everybody really came together,” said Watson. “We eliminated all of our errors and we played a lot more as a team and I think it showed in those last two sets.”