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Central York boys’ volleyball coach Todd Goodling had been waiting to see how his team would respond to adversity in a pressure situation.

He got his chance Tuesday at Exeter Township High School after the Panthers dropped the first set of their PIAA Class 3-A semifinal match against Emmaus.

The setback only seemed to light an emotional fire within the Panthers. Their focus narrowed and their effort expanded, and Central won three straight sets from there to claim a 22-25, 25-15, 25-23, 27-25 victory.

“That was the question I had about this team in the beginning,” Goodling said. “I knew we would be good, but I didn’t know how tough we would be. Whether we’d be able to find a way to win if things weren’t going well. And they've done that a bunch this year, and I think that’s what’s really special about this team.”

Central will now face North Allegheny on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Penn State’s Rec Hall for the PIAA title. The Panthers will seek their first state crown since 2014 and their seventh overall. In that 2014 state final appearance, Central beat North Allegheny, 25-17 25-21 25-19.

Battle of top-ranked foes: Tuesday was a classic match-up of the top-ranked teams in the state in Class 3-A, pitting the power of the No. 1 Panthers against the precision of the No. 2 Hornets. The rankings are according to the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association.

Emmaus had a difficult time containing the Panthers’ hard-hitting Cole Johnson. The junior standout scorched a match-high 27 kills. But for every Johnson kill, it seemed the Hornets had an answer early by finding the holes in the Panthers defense.

After falling behind 3-1 early in Game 2, the Panthers snapped into their game a took control with a 10-2 run. Johnson had a heavy hand in the run with two kills and a number of big-swinging attempts.

“I kind of just woke up,” Johnson said of his efforts after the first set. “In the beginning I kind of felt a little slow and off pace. Then my tempo started picking up and everything just started flowing more smoothly.”

Johnson seemed intensely focused in the fourth game, a stoic look across his face as he willed the Panthers to the finish. He had the serve during a five-point run that saw Central erase a 7-4 deficit in the fourth game. That run also included a highlight reel kill from the 10-foot line.

Johnson then accounted for the last three points to close out the victory. With the gym buzzing in anticipation, Johnson finished off a wild series with his 27th kill to send the Panthers to Rec Hall.

Anderson comes up big: The Hornets made some needed adjustments to account for Johnson in the third game, but Panthers senior attacker Drew Anderson was there to compensate. With his team trailing 6-3 in the third set, Anderson helped lead a 9-2 Panthers run that gave Central command at 12-8. During the run, Anderson came up with his only block of the game and three of his nine kills on the night. Two of those kills came on back-to-back plays where the Hornets sent long pass attempts over the net, right into Anderson’s wheelhouse.

“At that point we needed to win to keep our energy up. We knew if we lost that game it wouldn’t be good,” Anderson said. “We need to really bring it (Saturday). I feel like if we play like that against North Allegheny we definitely will not win. We’ll work on it and get more focused.”

Senior setter Carter Luckenbaugh said he watched the Panthers’ state title run in 2014 from the bench as a freshman. This time around, however, Luckenbaugh is an integral part of the Panthers' success. Luckenbaugh was credited with 52 assists and turned in a solid defensive effort with nine digs.

“Ever since (the 2014 title) it’s been the goal (of the seniors on the team) to make it to the last match of the year,” Luckenbaugh said. “We’ve been talking about it for four years now and we just put our hearts out there on the court tonight. Everyone contributed and it feels amazing to finally make it.”

For his part, Anderson was also solid defensively with 14 digs. Central libero Zak Kakos also posted 14 digs. Sophomore attacker Braden Richard added to the powerful Panthers with 17 kills of his own, to go along with nine digs.

North Allegheny beat District 3 runner-up Central Dauphin in the other semifinal on Tuesday, 26-24, 25-19, 21-25, 25-22. Central Dauphin was ranked No. 3 in 3-A by the PVCA, while North Allegheny was No. 4.

Reach Elijah Armold at earmold@yorkdispatch.com.

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