EMIGSVILLE — While Tuesday’s PIAA Class AA state semifinal contest between Northeastern and York Suburban felt like a state championship match, it was not.
A handful of fans eagerly waited for the doors to open at 5:15 p.m. for the 7 p.m. start. The line to get into the building at Central York High School, 30 minutes before play actually began, rivaled the lines on a nice day to get on a roller-coaster at Hershey Park.
While the atmosphere was certainly championship worthy, so too was the play between the District 3 champion Bobcats and the District 3 runner-up Trojans.
Game 1 and Game 2 were bitterly contested between the local rivals. But even while playing their most inspired ball of the season, Suburban was still unable to crack the three-time state champions from Northeastern.
After falling in Game 1, the Trojans gave the Bobcats perhaps their toughest run of the season in Game 2. Rallying back to even the score at 20-20, Suburban just couldn’t make enough plays to become the first team all season to take a game from Northeastern in a best-of-5 match.
The Bobcats made sure to add more cushion in Game 3 to survive a game Suburban side, 25-19, 25-23, 25-14.
Northeastern will now play for a fourth consecutive PIAA Class AA state title Saturday at 11 a.m. at Penn State's Rec Hall against Ambridge, which downed Saegertown, 3-2, in the other semifinal.
“We’re moving on and we feel pretty blessed about that,” Northeastern coach Matt Wilson said.
A much-anticipated meeting: The intrigue of the battle between York-Adams League heavyweights has loomed large since both teams began the state tournament. A quick glance at the bracket showed the two teams on a collision course in the semifinals if each took care of business. When it came to fruition, one only need look at the line to get into the building at Central York to figure out this was more than just another match.
“There was certainly a lot of drama built up,” Wilson said. “Being two local teams, in particular, and being a team that we’ve played multiple times, and they’ve continued to improve all season to get to this point.”
After breezing to easy victories over Crestwood and Nanticoke in state play, the Bobcats were given their toughest test Tuesday. Wilson’s team was never able to find a way to gain a significant amount of separation on the scoreboard in either of the first two games. That likely added to the atmosphere, with the fans wondering if Northeastern would crack under the pressure.
“We’ve been anointed as the one that is going to go back to the final and you get to this point, where we’ve won virtually everything, and you just start to feel it,” Wilson said. “Today we played pretty tight, did some uncharacteristic things, and we didn’t connect well. But credit to our attackers and defenders … they kept playing.”
Needed challenge: While winning easily like the they did in the first two rounds is definitely less stressful, the Bobcats took Suburban’s challenge as something they actually needed at this time of the year.
“I think it is,” Northeastern senior Jeff Reynolds said about playing in a tight contest. “In practice we’re always in situations where we’re down and we have to work back. You never know when you’re going to find yourself in a Game 5 situation. You can’t just back off, you have to be prepared.”
Suburban definitely did its best to throw its best scare into Wilson and his team. Down 18-13 in Game 1, the Trojans ran off two points to close within 18-15, forcing a Northeastern timeout. Then came a great start in Game 2 for the Trojans, who rolled to a 6-1 advantage, forcing Wilson to burn another timeout.
That five-point deficit was the largest hole the Bobcats have faced during a regular-season match all year.
It didn’t last long, however. Wilson’s club responded after the timeout to quickly even the score at 6-6.
“We gave up some big runs,” Suburban coach Jamie Evans said. “And when you allow that, it’s really tough to fight back against a team like (Northeastern).”
Not a complete loss for Suburban: While Tuesday’s environment was worthy of a state final, only one of the teams could live on to fight for state gold. Suburban wished it could have been that team, but Tuesday’s result, while not completely satisfying, was not a total loss either.
“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,” Evans said. “And they are the best. We competed and did everything that we could. We tried to zero in on certain things and I think it was successful when we were able to follow through on it. I think our serving was much better tonight.”
Sepehr Vakili led a balanced offensive attack for Suburban with six kills. Jack Schultz finished with five kills, while Ian Firestone added three. Kaleb Ansell dished out 15 assists, while Gavin Dean paced the Trojan defense with 11 digs.
Reese Devilbiss, who served an ace on the match’s final point, led Northeastern with 18 kills. Dakoda Hoffman added 10, while Reynolds finished with five. Setter Matt Schaeffer dished out 35 assists while Chris Lee registered five digs for the Bobcat defense.
Reach Ryan Vandersloot at firstname.lastname@example.org.