Volleyball: Lady Gators make it to D-9 Final Four

Lori Chase
Port Allegany Reporter Argus
November 10, 2011

Port Allegany’s most successful volleyball season of the last decade came to an end on Saturday afternoon, but not until they’d earned a trip to the District 9 Class A Championship “final four” at St. Marys High School.

The top-seeded Lady Gators (16-3) ran into some tough opposition in the “Dutch Oven,” dropping two-set matches to Ridgway (26-24, 25-21), Allegheny-Clarion Valley (25-18, 25-17), and eventual district champ Clarion (25-8, 25-23), but for coach Sharon Daniels, making it there was something to be proud of.

“Seriously, the best of the best is who’s here. It doesn’t matter what seed you are, if you end up here in the final four, you are one of the top four teams in the district,” she said. “When we talked to the team after our first practice, I told them, ‘You know what, guys? Collectively, you have so much potential that you could win the league, but that’s not our goal.’ The very first day of practice, I said, ‘Our goal is to be at the final four.’ That’s what we’ve worked for all year long, and hey, here we were.”

Just to make it to St. Marys, Port High had to survive a tough quarterfinal draw against Johnsonburg on Thursday night. The Ramettes had squeaked past the Lady Gators in the ECC Tournament earlier in the season; Daniels expected another tight match this time, and the first game didn’t disappoint. Port led by as many as five points, but Johnsonburg crept closer on the strength of a service run by Sara Bevacqua – one of five seniors in coach Bill Shuey’s lineup against the underclassmen-dominated Lady Gators – and the game was in doubt until Rachel Taylor’s serve at 25-24 spun sideways off an attempted dig for the winning point.

The second game looked like it was going to be just as tight, but at 5-5, Port gained some momentum off a strong Becca Lathrop kill followed by another Taylor ace. With the Ramettes scrambling to stay within reach – “we lost our composure,” Shuey said – Ashley Woodruff closed out a 25-13 win with another ace. From there, the Lady Gators were rolling, forging a 20-13 lead in the final set before finishing the game off 25-20.

“I was confident we were prepared for a long night,” Daniels said. “But as they have all season, the girls regrouped and came out in the second set totally composed and extremely aggressive. Rachel Taylor completely took control of the next two sets. Ending the night with 20 kills and 10 blocks, she not only controlled our offense but their defense as well. Their outside hitters had to find somewhere else to swing because she, with the assistance of freshman Brooke Roys, was stopping everything hard crosscourt. Becca Lathrop (18 points, 14 digs, three kills) had a stellar night serving and Jenny Shelley (30 assists, four kills, four digs, three points) was solid running our offense.”

Shelley would hit the 1,000-assist milestone in Saturday morning’s opening match against Ridgway, but the Lady Elkers managed to pull off the comeback win, and A-C Valley handed the Lady Gators another loss to knock them out of contention for a state playoff berth.

“That first match against Ridgway seemed to take the life right out of our offense,” Daniels said. “The scores indicate that we were ‘in’ each of the two sets but we didn’t do anything as a team to control their offense and ours just never got going. After watching A-C at the Kane tournament, I thought we would match up very well with them, but unfortunately the girls had to match up on Saturday and didn’t.”

Second-seeded Clarion came into the day’s final match on a roll, having already clinched a PIAA slot with wins over the other two teams. With big hitters Cassidy Sintobin and Ellie Burns hammering the ball from all over the court, the Lady Bobcats rode a 13-point run by Matti Thornton to a 25-8 win in the first set.

“The score sat 9-8 in Clarion’s favor and we were hanging right with them,” Daniels said, “and it seemed like the next time I checked the score, it was game over. The next pre-game huddle included much talk of pride and going down swinging, proving we did indeed deserve to be here.”

The Lady Gators did just that, taking a 20-15 lead before another Thornton service run tied the game and Clarion eked out the two-point win to finish the day undefeated.

But while Daniels had hoped to make some noise on Saturday, she’s satisfied with her young squad’s season, which included a perfect run through the North Tier League for Port’s first title since 1999 and fifth overall.

“At any given time (on Saturday), we had three juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen that were playing in the game,” she said. “That’s very exciting. I’m sad for our two seniors, but look at all the rest of us that are coming back for next year.

“I’m unbelievably proud that you can start with a goal and accomplish it, and that’s what they did. Their goal from Day 1 was to get here, and I can’t even tell you how proud I am of them. They worked so unbelievably hard, they truly did. We work harder in every practice than we do in any match. Kudos to them.”

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