PITTSBURGH — The Meadville boys volleyball team had several opportunities to pack it in, to concede to a very good opponent, to say goodbye to the season.
But the Bulldogs didn’t do it. They didn’t do it when they fell behind in the first set, when Derry Area showed just how many weapons it could bring to bear. They didn’t do it after losing the third set in a heartbreaker and falling behind 2-1. And they didn’t do it when Derry was closing in on the match win, leading in the later stages of the fifth and final set.
Meadville just kept playing.
And Meadville will keep on playing.
The Bulldogs moved on to the PIAA Class 2A semifinals after outlasting WPIAL third seed Derry through five whoppers on Saturday at Penn Hills High School.
Final scores were 25-23, 19-25, 26-28, 25-22, 15-12.
“Mentally tough,” Meadville head coach Nick Bancroft said about his squad. “This is two matches in a row where we stayed mentally tough, we stayed with it. They don’t give up. They don’t want to lose. They go to the end. That’s them. They’re tough kids.”
Said junior Mark Conrad, “No matter what the score is — if we’re down two, three, four, five, six — we don’t get down. We pick each other up and we try to get the win no matter what.”
With the win, Meadville heads off to the state semifinals where it will take on Ambridge, a 25-16, 25-22, 25-17 winner over Bethlehem Catholic. The match is slated for Tuesday at a site and time to be announced.
“I thought the effort on both sides was tremendous,” said Derry head coach Shawn Spencer. “It was very high-level. Both teams went after it. That’s what you like to see at this time of year, both as a spectator and a coach and as a fan of the game.”
Meadville had plenty to battle through in this one. For instance, Derry came in with a pair of big, Division I-level hitters on its side — 6-foot-6 Penn State recruit John Kerr and 6-4 St. Francis recruit Jason Geary.
Those two led the charge for the Trojans in the early going with some towering spikes, which helped Derry lead for the majority of the first set, and by as many as five points (14-9).
“That’s a very good team,” said Bancroft. “They had a couple kids that were hard to stop. They’re well-coached, disciplined. They played good defense and got some good touches on the ball. We just had to keep battling.”
So, Meadville kept battling. The Bulldogs’ blockers would get in front of a kill attempt and try to slow down the Derry hammers. The Bulldogs’ back row would pull out some clutch digs to keep the ball in the air. Gradually, Meadville started to transition into its attack. The Bulldogs would get a point here and a point there. Soon enough, the Bulldogs were running right alongside the Trojans at 21-20.
Next thing Derry knew, Meadville had the momentum. And the Bulldogs put a stamp on the first set, winning five of the final six serves thanks to a pair of kills by Aiden Miller, a kill by Conrad, a block by Tucker Watson and a game-winning block by Conrad.
The second game was roughly the same deal. Only this time, Derry handled its passing better and was able to sustain its attack, going most frequently through Kerr, who would finish the day with an astounding 32 kills. He helped the Trojans close out the set pretty firmly, 25-19.
“John’s phenomenal,” said Conrad. “We watched a match on YouTube and we knew immediately that he was their best player. We just tried to contain him, get some touches on his hits and try to make it easier for someone else to play it.”
The third set is where things could have really gone south for Meadville. The Bulldogs seemed to have Derry in trouble, leading the Trojans 22-19 after three straight points.
However, a contact foul and three straight hitting error by the Bulldogs put Derry at game point, 24-22.
Meadville found its touch again with three consecutive winners, taking game point at 25-24.
Derry stayed alive with a kill by Kerr. But then a net serve by the Trojans put Meadville back in position at 26-25.
However, Kerr put down a spike to give the ball back to Derry. Hunter Hebenthal had a big block for the Trojans. And the Bulldogs sent a kill long, putting Derry one set away from ending the match.
Plenty of teams would have folded at this point. Meadville wasn’t interested in joining those ranks.
“We play as a team,” said Meadville setter Paul Leech. “That’s our biggest thing. We have so much chemistry between the six guys on the floor and the guys on the bench. We all support each other and we’re not going to let the other guys fall.”
Up until this point, Derry had been playing a pretty clean match. That was not the case in game No. 4. The Trojans had 10 errors, either on the kill or on the serve, and were also whistled for four violations.
Perhaps all that extra volleyball that Derry was forced to play against Meadville and its tenacious defense was beginning to catch up with the Trojans. Their passes were off the mark. Their swings didn’t have the same pop. Meadville soon found itself up 17-10.
Derry mounted a nice comeback, winning 10 of the next 13 serves to tie the set up at 20-20.
But Meadville kept playing. The Bulldogs kept their heads up and stepped out of the quagmire and won five of the next seven volleys to claim the set 25-22. Miller had a kill during the run. Watson had a block on Levi Felbaum and a kill. And Derry sent a kill and a serve long.
“It’s easy to fall in that trap,” Bancroft said about his team’s rough patch in the fourth. “But they stayed alive and battled to the end.”
Then came set No. 5. It was back-and-forth to start, with Meadville eventually leading 6-5. It seemed like whichever team caught fire first and got a run started was going to win this one.
That was Derry. With three kills by Kerr and a couple of errors on the Bulldogs’ side, the Trojans were just four points away from closing out the match, leading 11-8.
But … you guessed it … Meadville kept playing. Kerr knocked a poorly set ball into the net, giving the serve back to Meadville.
“We gave (Meadville) an easy out,” said Spencer. “And they had the momentum from that point on. And it was tough to get it back.”
Conrad served up four straight winners for Meadville, finished on a block by Watson against Colton Nemcheck; a kill by Julian Jones; a second-touch tip by Paul Leech; and a net violation by the Trojans.
Meadville was up 13-11. The Bulldogs would close it out a few serves later when Watson put down a spike that Derry chased around the back line but couldn’t put back in play.
“That was two good teams going at it,” said Spencer. “When you look at the scores and the total number of points by each team is tied, that tells you a lot about the quality of volleyball that was going on out there in a five-game match.”
By the end of it all, Miller had 20 kills and 10 digs for Meadville. Conrad had eight kills, followed by seven each from Watson and Jones. Jones also had 13 digs followed by 11 from Brendan Leech. Paul Leech had 39 assists and seven digs.
“Down 2-1, it feels amazing coming back from that deficit,” said Miller. “The whole team, we just keep each other positive and keep pushing.”