Gator spikers fall in state playoff opener

Maybe it was when Port Allegany sophomore Brooke Roys stuffed Greensburg Central Catholic star Shannon Hurley at the net, then hammered home a kill of her own on the next volley. Or maybe it was when the Gators’ own big hitter, Rachel Taylor, followed a huge spike with back-to-back tip-ins to give Port a two-point lead late in the third game.

Pick your own highlight, but the District 7 (WPIAL) champion and No. 2-ranked Class A team in the state found itself in a battle with the District 9 runners-up.

“You know something’s happening,” Port coach Sharon Daniels said, “when the teams warming up for the next match stop to come over and watch.”

A late surge gave the Centurions (19-1) the win in that game and a 25-17, 25-18, 25-22 straight-set victory in Tuesday night’s PIAA playoff opener at North Allegheny High School, but the Gators (20-4) didn’t make it easy for them.

“This time of year, you have to think that everybody’s going to give you a match. That’s what we have to anticipate,” GCC coach Heather Meyer said.

Though Meyer’s squad is the one moving on, Daniels saw no cause for disappointment in the Gators’ performance.

“We matched up well on paper and we matched up as well on the court. Their D1-destined player has nothing on Rachel Taylor,” she said of Hurley, who’s already accepted a scholarship to play at Winthrop University next season. “Once we adjusted to the much quicker pace of play we were in all three sets. I thought for sure we had the third match. The passers were effectively getting the ball to Jenny (Shelley), who got the ball exactly where we needed it. She and Rachel combined for five or six kills in a row and we had them down 20-18.”

Shelley led the Gators with 8 service points (1 ace) and added 21 assists and 5 kills, while Taylor matched Hurley swing-for-swing – the sound of their booming spikes echoing throughout the North Allegheny gym – to finish with 16 kills, 5 service points (2 aces) and 2 blocks.

While the two four-year starters paced Port’s offense, the rest of the roster showed no sign of jitters in their first trip to the PIAA playoffs, with Daniels mentioning everyone in her post-match recap.

“Brooke Roys (4 kills, 2 blocks) stepped up big tonight,” she said. “Becca Lathrop (6 kills, 1 block) made her presence known in the third game with a hit rivaling Rachel’s. Ashley Woodruff, as she has all season, swung aggressively, causing mistakes that then set up our offense for the kill. Jena Young (6 points, 1 ace) moved to every ball and swung aggressively. Amber Naylor passed off the serve so well tonight. She played a tough backrow.

“Taylor Causer (6 points, 2 aces) and Bethy Bernardi (5 points, 1 ace) combined for 11 service points, the only errors coming with aggressive placement. They served smart and caused a number of free balls on which we capitalized. Rikki Rennels saw time on strong side and had a nice kill in the second set. Hannah Ernst stepped in three positions and passed well off the serve. Her defense improved with each set.”

Hurley led GCC with 17 kills, 8 points (1 ace) and a block, with fellow six-footers Leah Bisignani (7 kills, 1 block) and Ashley Scalise (6 kills) also adding to the offense and Rachel Moore (9 points, 4 aces) and Emma Dickson (9 points, 2 aces) serving well.

The Centurions move on to face another WPIAL Catholic school, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, in the second round after the Chargers dispatched D-6 champ Penns Manor 25-8, 25-18, 25-18. Clarion also won its PIAA opener, 25-18, 25-19, 25-21, over Bishop Canevin to advance to a matchup against D-10’s Maplewood in a battle of district champions.

While the Gators finish the year at 20-4, Daniels sees both plenty of reasons to be proud of their 2012 campaign and potential for more success in the seasons ahead.

“We are going to sorely miss our three seniors,” she said, “but it was exciting to see five juniors and three sophomores with substantial playing time in a state playoff match!”

***

Daniels also announced the Gators’ representatives on the North Tier League All-Star teams, with league Most Valuable Player Jenny Shelley, Rachel Taylor (last year’s MVP) and Becca Lathrop all being named to the first team and Ashley Woodruff and Brooke Roys earning second-team honors. Daniels was named Coach of the Year following Port’s second straight 14-0 run through the league.

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