STATE COLLEGE — It was evident early in the match. York Suburban wasn’t presenting Meadville with anything that the Bulldogs hadn’t seen before.
That’s not to say that York Suburban wasn’t a good team. It was a very good team.
However, Meadville had already seen several very good teams this season. And those experiences prepared the Bulldogs well for Saturday’s PIAA Class 2A championship victory, claimed over York Suburban in five fantastic games — 25-17, 25-19, 16-25, 25-27, 15-13.
That win is as much a reflection of who the 2019 Bulldogs are as it is a reflection of where they came from.
Before we could even finish posing the issue to Bulldogs head coach Nick Bancroft, he was already on board.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “District 10 gets lots of credit. We battled some really tough teams in this district. And they prepped us for that match. I told our guys, (York Suburban) compares to Cambridge Springs. They’re a little bit better than Cambridge Springs. There’s not a weakness out there. Saegertown had some big hitters that can take care of the ball and really challenge us. So did (York Suburban). McDowell is another good comparison. (York Suburban) is like a McDowell team, but maybe faster.
“D-10 is a really tough district. They set the standard for us. And they get us well prepared.”
That being said, York Suburban’s home district is no slouch either. In fact, it’s fair to say that District 3 is the best boys volleyball district in the state, featuring such perennial luminaries as Northeastern, Manheim Central, Central York, Hempfield, etc. Of the last 30 state titles won in boys volleyball since 2001, District 3 teams have claimed 23 of them.
“District 3 is tough,” said Bancroft. “(York Suburban) plays some really good teams as well. That’s why they’re as good as they are.
“Both teams were well prepared for a battle.”
In this particular battle, however, it was the District 10 team rising above. And the anvil that forged the Bulldogs this season deserves some credit.
Of course, it took a special group of players to use those tools in the end.
Of Meadville’s players, one had a special chant from the cheering section whenever he did something positive.
The chant was: “He’s a freshman!”
That was for Julian Jones, who worked his way into Meadville’s starting rotation as a 9th grader, and yesterday found himself on the state’s big stage.
“It’s crazy to come out here and win a state championship my first year,” said Jones. “It feels amazing, man.”
Asked how he handled the gravity of the situation he replied, “I just had to play the game the way we have all year, not let the noise affect me, the size of the court, the other team. Just play the game the way I know how.”
Jones had some big moments in the championship match, finishing with seven kills and 16 digs.
“The last couple matches we played teams that have gone after him on the serve-receive,” Bancroft said about Jones. “They served the ball to him a lot. But it prepped him for this type of situation. They put the pressure on him and he didn’t crack. He stepped up and did the things he needed to do to help us win.”
Jones wasn’t the only one who found himself in the state championship match in his first varsity season.
Sophomore Charlie Waid hadn’t played volleyball since elementary school. But he came out this year and became a valuable member of the program. On Saturday he made some crucial plays for the Bulldogs.
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” said Waid. “I didn’t think we’d be here. And then we got here in this big gym. But we just played our game, just like we’d practiced.”
And then, of course, there is Bancroft himself. It was his first season as a varsity head coach And he won a state championship.
He was asked: Now what?
He answered: “I don’t know.”
His players then answered for him:
“Do it again!” one of them yelled.
“Yeah,” said another. “Next year!”
Meadville’s Tucker Watson is no stranger to state-level competition.
In fact, the volleyball run was his third trip to states this school year alone. He also made it to states in cross country this past fall, and qualified for track and field states earlier this spring.
The trip with the volleyball team was the senior’s final chance to bring home a medal. And it was a gold one.
“First time I’ve ever medaled,” said Watson. “Winning the (semifinal) match, that was guaranteeing a state medal. Making it in cross country twice and track this year, it’s been awesome. But doing this as a team, too … making it individually or with the relay team in track is a fun experience. But to win it with this group of guys that I’ve grown so close with is an incredible feeling.”
This was also the second trip to a state tournament for Aiden Miller and Charlie Waid, who were both members of the Meadville boys basketball team.
Meadville junior Mark Conrad really came on strong during the Bulldogs’ state run. And his effectiveness was a bit of a change from early in the season.
“Beginning of the year I, um, kept hitting the ball out of bounds for some reason.”
This admission gets a round of laughter from his teammates.
“So I worked on that. And I did on lot of stuff at home, trying to get my vertical leap up. Nick was really helpful, giving me some tips. Same with Matt (Izbinski) and coach Tim (Schleicher) and coach Dan (Nelson). I got my swing down and I started putting them away.”
In the championship match Conrad did a little bit of everything — six kills, five assists, 10 digs.
Logan’s (serving) run
There have been plenty of standouts for Meadville during their perfect run in 2019. There was Aiden Miller with the kills, Paul Leech with the assists, Brendan Leech with the digs, etc.
One person that often gets overlooked is junior Logan Gregor.
Coming off the bench, Gregor has been invaluable at the baseline for the Bulldogs, dropping in a short-stroke jump serve that stayed consistently on-target and coaxed back several free balls.
“(Gregor) comes in and does what we ask him to do,” said Bancroft. “We want him to serve the ball and serve it effectively. And he also makes some big digs. He did have some big digs today. He’s always a nice leader for the team. He’s vocal out there. You can hear him wherever you’re at. So he does a good job. He didn’t miss any today.”
Among Gregor’s serving runs in the championship match was five straight in the first set, four straight in the second and third, and a three-point run in the fourth.
“Every time he goes back there I feel confident that we’re going to have a run of two or three points at least,” said Bancroft.”