They came a long way: Lady Chucks take second

CLARION — Entering the final pool play match against the No. 1 seeded Lady Owls of Bradford, the Lady Chucks volleyball team wasn't sure which tie-breaker would be used if it could sweep the Lady Owls, but the squad knew it controlled its own destiny.

The Lady Chucks also knew the difficulty of the task ahead of them.

Bradford had handed Punxsy a three-game loss in the teams' only meeting this season, but Punxsy was a different, more-mature team this time around: A team with five consecutive wins under its belt and more experience behind its younger players.

The Lady Chucks did the improbable and defeated the Lady Owls in two games, but later found out doing so put them in a three-way tie with no tie-breaker.

A three-team playoff would determine the District IX champion.

Punxsy had earned the No. 1 seed after the re-seeding for the playoff, but the Lady Owls defeated St. Marys to earn a rematch and powered their way to a 25-13 victory over the Lady Chucks in the one-set playoff to earn the District IX title.

Despite the disappointing result, Punxsy head coach Lisa Kephart wanted to express just how proud she was of her team's performance and improvement throughout the year.

"This was such a tough loss for our team," she said. "They wanted it so badly, but so did Bradford. I think that it is such an accomplishment to make it this far. We had such a huge transition this year; having a new coach and almost an entire new varsity team. A lot of adjustments were made throughout the season, and it took a lot of time to find our groove. To be able to get here really proved a lot."

It was the Lady Chucks' pool play match-up with the Lady Owls that really showed just how much they matured throughout the season.

The Lady Chucks led early in their first game when they hosted Bradford Oct. 3 in the teams' only regular season meeting, but Bradford's Ali Linfrette had a hot serving hand and led the Lady Owls to a comeback in the first set of a set-game sweep.

But Punxsy didn't let that loss factor into their play Saturday, as Punxsy controlled both sets in the match, going on to win in two close games 25-23, 25-23, against Bradford.

"This was such a fun match to play, and to come out on top was awesome," Kephart said. "This match really showed what these girls can do and how hard they can work for a win. I was so impressed how well they worked together as a team. Each player had so much emotion, and they were focused on that win. Shayla (Brink) had a great game hitting, which was allowed by Cassie (Cook's) fantastic setting. Cassie did a wonderful job all day."

In the first set, the teams traded points and were tied at 11, with the Lady Chucks attack fueled by aces by Chelsea Engeholm and Cook.

Bradford's Emily Marshall opened things up, though, with a four-point run, and Haley Vinelli pushed the lead to five at 21-16 with a three-point rally of her own.

But Punxsy's Brooke Doney entered the game to serve after a quick dump by Cook gave Punxsy a sideout, and Doney's strong serves brought the Lady Chucks within three again.

After trading three sideouts, Cook stepped to the service line with the Lady Chucks down two and went on a four-point run to end the set and give Punxsy a one-set advantage in the best-of-three.

In the second set, Punxsy fell behind early after some long volleys went Bradford's way, but senior Janie Depp-Hutchinson brought the Lady Chucks back with a three-point rally to pull them within one point at 8-7.

Bradford earned service back, but a strong kill by Punxsy's Taylor Newcome tied it for Punxsy, and Cook went on a five-point run that included two aces to put Punxsy in the driver's seat at 15-10.

Bradford's Alyssa Ekas fought back with a four-point run following Cook's serve, though, and Lindsay Rinfrette put the Lady Owls ahead 17-19 with two points.

Doney's powerful serve proved to be a difference-maker for Punxsy in changing the momentum, though, as she earned three aces on four points to bring the Lady Chucks within one point of the two-game sweep.

A sideout gave Bradford another chance, but after one point, Bradford served the ball into the net, and Punxsy had pulled off the improbable.

Kephart was proud of the growth her team showed in this two-set win over the king-seed entering Saturday.

"All that I can say for my team is that they have improved so much throughout the season," she said. "I couldn't be more proud of them."

Punxsy started the day with a two-set sweep over Karns City, 25-22, 29-27.

Doney led the way for Punxsy with three aces, and junior hitter Sydney Weaver had five kills in the first set.

In the second, it was a balanced attack for the Lady Chucks with Depp-Hutchinson, Shayla Brink, Weaver, Newcome and Emilee States each earned kills.

Kephart said the balanced attack and the quick start were credited to a full-team effort defensively, too.

"It was a great way to start off the day, a competitive game that we were able to take in two," Kephart said. "I think getting the first win of the day really set the mood for the remaining matches. Sydney had a nice hitting game with five kills. Brooke, Chelsea and Janie each played very well in the back row allowing for some nice plays to take place."

During Punxsy's second match of the day, the Lady Dutch of St. Marys forced a three-way tie for the title later when the Lady Chucks fell in three sets.

Punxsy jumped out to an early lead with a first-set win that saw more good defense. Doney and Cook led the way with four digs apiece, and Weaver picked up two blocks.

The second set was a back-and-forth one that went to extra points, and St. Marys swung the momentum with a 29-27 win.

In the third set, St. Marys won more comfortably, 25-19, to earn its place in the three-way tie. St. Marys' only loss of the day came to the Lady Owls.

"I just wish we didn't have to go to three in this match," Kephart said. "The second set could have went either way, and we just couldn't pull off the win. The girls stuck with it and never gave up, though."

Bradford advanced to the PIAA state tournament by winning the D-IX title, and the Lady Chucks' season came to an end, but Kephart said her team had nothing to be ashamed of given their performance Saturday.

"We finished our season very well, and I am so proud of each of the girls for how hard they worked," she said.