DALLASTOWN -- The Central York girls' volleyball team had Exeter in a very unfamiliar spot Thursday night.
An Eagles' side that had dropped just four games during an 18-0 campaign was trailing 2-0 in a District 3-AAA semifinal match at Dallastown High School.
Perhaps it was their youth (Exeter's roster is comprised mostly of sophomores) or maybe it was just not knowing any better, but the Berks County champions showed some remarkable toughness. Coach Jason Grove's team rallied from a 16-15 hole in Game 3 by winning 10 of the final 11 points and the Eagles continued their momentum to pull out a 19-25, 24-26, 25-17, 25-19, 15-6 triumph.
Despite the setback, the Panthers can still extend their season by winning the District 3-AAA third-place match against Hempfield, who was swept by Cumberland Valley (25-21, 25-20, 29-27) in the other semifinal. The consolation contest is set for 5 p.m. Saturday at Dallastown. The winner of that match will earn the third-and-final state berth into next week's PIAA Class AAA Tournament.
Grove couldn't explain precisely how his team maintained its composure, but did offer a few ideas.
"Maybe we're young and dumb," Grove said. "Or maybe we're not smart enough to realize the ramifications of being down to a team that good. Being down 2-0 to a team as talented as Central York is definitely not a spot you want to find yourself in."
Central coach Nate Ocasio was disappointed that his team had a chance to sweep the Eagles in Game 3, but allowed that game to slip away.
"Against a team like that ... you have to capitalize," he said. "You can't let a team build momentum and build confidence."
Exeter, which is ranked No. 5 in the state in AAA in the latest Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association poll, came out of the gate like a team with a perfect record. The Eagles raced out to a 10-2 lead in Game 1 before the Panthers swiftly turned the momentum behind the serving of Naya Cheatem and the hitting of Hadley Swartz.
Swartz slammed down one of her game-high 23 kills to get the ball back to Cheatem at the service line. Cheatem followed with seven-straight points that tied up the contest at 10-all before the York-Adams Division II runners-up finished off by claiming Game 1 in style.
"She's a really good server and they were in a rotation that they struggled in," Ocasio said.
The Eagles fell behind 7-1 early in Game 2 but rallied late to force a 22-all deadlock. The Panthers blew one shot at a game point before Swartz capitalized on their second chance at the service line.
Game 3 was back-and-forth until Grove's side rallied from a 16-15 deficit by winning the next five points. After Central's Allison Rife got a kill to make it 20-17, the Berks County school scored the final five points to stay alive.
From that point on, the momentum was solidly behind the Eagles, who earned the Berks League its first Class AAA finalist ever.
"It's just like a perfect storm," Grove said of Thursday's comeback as well as the makeup of his team in general. "We have a very strong sophomore class. They're big and strong and they love volleyball and then we have two upperclassmen that are team leaders and they really work well together."
Ocasio was impressed with how the youthful Eagles responded after having their backs up firmly against the wall.
"They are a young team, which means that they feed a lot off of high energy and confidence," he said. "And that's kind of what started happening in Game 3."
Swartz finished with 16 digs and two aces on the night while Cheatem tallied six aces and five blocks. Setter Erin Dobbeck dished out 42 assists, while Andrea Quartey recorded 10 kills and three blocks.
Exeter's Sara Wesley led a balanced Eagle attack with 12 kills to go with 11 digs, four blocks and four aces. Setter Shannon Restrepo dished out 44 assists and recorded 10 digs, while Gabbie Stick led her team with 15 kills.
Central's next contest won't be easy. Hempfield was ranked No. 2 in the state in AAA by the PVCA before getting upset by unranked Cumberland Valley.
OTHER GIRLS' VOLLEYBALL
DELONE MOVES TO DISTRICT 3 TITLE MATCH: At Wilson, the Squirettes stormed into the District 3-AA girls' volleyball championship match with a 25-9, 25-16, 25-15 semifinal victory over Palmyra.
Cambria Wierman had nine kills to pace Delone.
The top-seeded Squirettes improved to 20-0, while fourth-seeded Palmyra finished 18-3.
Delone will now take on sixth-seeded Berks Catholic (14-1) for the championship at 5 p.m. Saturday at Dallastown High School.
Berks Catholic beat Brandywine Heights in the other semifinal, 26-24, 27-25, 25-22.
Seventh-seeded Brandywine Heights finished at 13-3.
YORK HIGH LOSES TO McCASKEY: At Lancaster, the Bearcats dropped the non-league match, 26-24, 25-18, 25-19.
Jasmine Berry led the visitors with six kills, four digs and three aces.
McCaskey won the JV match 2-0.
-- Reach Ryan Vander sloot at sports@yorkdis patch.com.