MECHANICSBURG -- The prevailing thought among the fans, players and coaches on Wednesday night at Cumberland Valley High School was identical -- it's a shame.
Nearly everyone voiced their displeasure at the thought that two of the state's top three Class AA boys' volleyball programs -- Northeastern and Bethlehem Catholic -- should have to face each other in the first round of the PIAA state tournament.
Such a clash should be reserved for the state semifinals or finals.
The reality of it, however, was that only one team would walk out of the gym with a chance to win a state title. And thanks in large part to a bevy of big hitters, the Bobcats were the ones celebrating on the court and on the bus ride home to Manchester.
Led by a big game from freshman Reese Devilbiss (20 kills, two aces and seven digs), Northeastern pulled out a 25-17, 20-25, 25-20, 25-15 victory over the defending Class AA state champions.
The Bobcats move on to battle North Pocono, the No. 2 seed from District 2, in the quarterfinals Saturday at noon at Minersville Area High School. North Pocono swept District 12's Engineering and Science, 25-12, 25-8, 25-17, in another first-round contest Wednesday.
While on paper it was only a first-round victory that moves his team into the state quarterfinals, Northeastern coach Matt Wilson knows it was much, much more than that.
"That's a whale of a team over there," Wilson said. "I want that to be clear. That team that we beat tonight is worthy of the No. 3 ranking in the state and is worthy of facing someone other than us in the first round. And I do think it's a shame."
The contest lived up to its hype from the outset. The teams traded big serves, attacks and even thrilling long rallies. Every point was fiercely contested.
"It lived up to what it was supposed to be," Wilson said. "That was a big-time matchup."
Devilbiss, who was getting his first taste of state playoff action, felt the grand nature of the match from the start.
"Everybody wants to win," Devilbiss said. "We just went back and forth and we had a few long rallies and those were intense."
The Bobcats, who entered the match ranked No. 1 in the state according to the latest Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association poll, broke a 10-10 deadlock in Game 1 with a modest two-point spurt, when Devilbiss found the court each time with a kill.
"I think I did pretty good tonight," Devilbiss said. "But it wasn't just me. It was everybody else too."
They continued to extend the lead as the game wore on, forcing timeouts at 16-13 and 18-13 by the Golden Hawks. Bethlehem Catholic did manage to cut the lead to 18-16, but the Bobcats rallied back by claiming seven of the last eight points to capture the first game.
Any momentum from that win didn't roll over into Game 2. The Hawks led early until Northeastern responded to even the score at 11-11 midway through. A three-point run allowed the Hawks to seize the momentum and they evened the match.
Northeastern trailed early in Game 3, but rebounded by shifting more attention toward the net. The Bobcats started to block more effectively and generate faster attacks, while digging nearly every ball in site. Quickly that 9-6 deficit turned into a 20-14 advantage for Northeastern.
"That's one of the most athletic teams that we will face in the state," Wilson said. "And I thought that they went to their most athletic kid (Evan Blair), and were setting him high, low and up and over. So we made a couple blocking shifts, made some defensive shifts, and we just started picking up more balls and extending the rallies."
The District 3 champions kept their foot on the pedal to start Game 4. They won five of the first six points. The Golden Hawks could only cut the deficit to as close as two (7-5) before the Bobcats pulled away at the end.
"I think they broke down there at the very end," Wilson said. "They had some miscommunication (issues) and we stayed pretty solid."
Seniors Malik Jefferson and Stephen Braswell combined for 15 kills, while setter Luke Braswell dished out 39 assists in the victory. Libero Matt Hollinger recorded 18 digs, while Stephen Braswell added 12 more to go with three aces.
-- Reach Ryan Vander sloot at sports@yorkdis patch.com.