The Northeastern boys' volleyball players can exhale now.
The Bobcats' standout 2019 season wasn't exactly teetering on the precipice late Monday night, but the Northeastern players could certainly see the cliff from where they stood.
In case you missed it, Northeastern got locked into a five-set marathon battle against Exeter Township in an entertaining District Class 3-A quarterfinal match in front of a packed house in Manchester.
Early on, the Bobcats had their hometown fans pumped up. They looked like they were going to cruise to an easy win after taking the first two sets in impressive fashion, 25-13, 25-23. Exeter, however, had other ideas, and rebounded strongly to win the next two sets, 25-21, 29-27.
That set up a deciding fifth set.
"That put us in a very precarious situation," Northeastern head coach Matt Wilson said Tuesday morning.
A lot at stake: There was more than a little at stake. The winner would clinch a state playoff berth. The loser would get demoted to the dreaded consolation bracket and would face the hugely unpleasant proposition of having to win two straight matches against two of the top teams in the state just to qualify for the PIAA tournament as the No. 5 seed from District 3.
Naturally, both teams desperately wanted to avoid that scenario.
Fortunately for the Bobcats, they emerged with a 15-13 fifth-set victory to advance to the semifinals and claim a state playoff berth.
"It can't get any closer than it was," Wilson said. "Both teams deserved to win. I think Exeter probably played their best match of the year, and for us, we played pretty well. For stretches we played extremely well. For other stretches, we were a little flat, but sometimes that’s because of your opponent ... Some of that falls on my shoulders."
Exeter tries to block the way: Wilson said Exeter's blocking prowess was a big reason the match went to five sets.
"We came out hitting on all cylinders and looked as good as we looked all year," he said. "We served well, we passed well and we defended well. What started to change was Exeter settled down and we weren’t serving nearly as tough and they became very physical at net as the match wore on. If (Exeter) is not the best blocking team we faced all year, they're the second best, which posed problems for us all evening."
Monday's standouts: Wilson said Joel Braswell, who led Northeastern with 15 kills, "played one of his best matches of the season."
The Bobcats also got big nights from Austin Richards (39 assists), Nate Wilson (11 kills, seven digs) and Tristan Schraudner (25 digs).
Nate Wilson, who is Matt's son, recently announced plans to compete collegiately at Ohio State University, which just happens to be the same school that Matt excelled for. It's also the same school where former Northeastern standout Reese Devilbiss is playing.
Survive and advance: The Bobcats needed strong efforts from all of those players to survive and advance, and in a District 3 3-A field littered with state-ranked teams, that is much easier said than done.
Northeastern came into Monday's battle ranked No. 2 in the state in 3-A by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association, while Exeter was No. 7.
In fact, six of the top seven 3-A teams in the state, according to the PVCA, are from this neck of the woods. Cumberland Valley (17-0) is No. 1, followed by the No. 2 Bobcats (16-1), No 3 Central York (14-2), No. 5 Warwick (15-2), No. 6 Hempfield (14-2) and No. 7 Exeter (15-1). Only North Allegheny, from District 7, breaks up the District 3 stranglehold at No. 4.
District 3 loaded: After Monday's quarterfinals, Exeter, Hempfield and Warwick have been pushed into the consolation semifinals, along with a Chambersburg team (11-6) that Matt Wilson said is close to being a top-10 state squad. Only one of those four will advance to the state playoffs.
"This is another level (this season) for District 3," Matt Wilson said. "District 3 has been the deepest and most premier district in the state in boys' volleyball for a long time. ... But this year, District 3 is like no other year I've seen."
State title hopes: It's no secret that Northeastern has state championship hopes this season. That comes with the territory in Manchester. The Bobcats have won the last six PIAA 2-A crowns before moving up to 3-A this season.
The Bobcats have proven, over the course of the season, that they can compete with, and beat, any 3-A team in the state. They've already claimed the York-Adams League regular-season and playoff crowns.
There's no doubt, however, that the Bobcats' road to a state title this season will be more treacherous. The 3-A field is deeper and stronger than the 2-A competition. That's only natural because the schools are bigger.
Sigh of relief: Monday night, however, the Bobcats secured one major goal on that journey — a state berth.
"There’s a little bit of a slight sigh of relief," Matt Wilson said. "We knew Exeter was one of the top five or six teams in the state. It's nice to punch your ticket to states. Now we have to lace them up and get ready for State College, which is playing its best volleyball of the year."
The district semifinal vs. State College (13-3) is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Dallastown High, followed by the other 3-A semifinal, a clash of titans between No. 3 Central York and No. 1 Cumberland Valley. Central had an easier time in its quarterfinal on Monday, sweeping Hempfield in three very competitive sets. CV likewise swept past Chambersburg in the quarterfinals.
Long night in Manchester: Unranked State College, meanwhile, earned its semifinal berth by upsetting Warwick in another five-set thriller in a match that preceded the Northeastern-Exeter match in Manchester on Monday.
That made for a very long night at Northeastern. The deciding point in the Bobcats-Eagles match came well after 10 p.m. In the end, however, the wait proved worth it, at least as far as Northeastern was concerned.
"Hopefully we learned a valuable lesson about holding on to momentum and finishing strong," Matt Wilson said.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.