Fifty-six teams are entered in the WPIAL girls volleyball playoffs, which began Tuesday, but only one has the distinction of playing in the WPIAL finals the past three years.
"Our goal is to make it back to the finals for a fourth straight year," Freeport coach Tom Phillips said. "This is the strongest group of kids I've had in my 12 years as head coach."
Freeport, last year's WPIAL Class AA runner-up, is seeded No. 2 in the 21-team bracket. Defending champion Hopewell is the top seed.
"I keep reminding the girls that anything can happen when you get to the playoffs," Phillips said. "You have to stay focused on the game you are playing. It would be great to get back to the finals and have a rematch with Hopewell, but we can't afford to look ahead."
The same is true for the probable semifinal matchup with Mars Area. The Yellowjackets and Planets tied for the Section 4-AA title after splitting a pair of regular-season matches.
"We served at a rate of 79 percent in our first match with Mars," said Phillips, referring to the Planets' 3-1 victory on Sept. 18. "That's the lowest total we've had in three years. We also struggled with our rotation in that match."
The two met again on Oct. 11 and Freeport turned the tables on Mars, winning, 3-1.
"We served 96 percent in the second match," Phillips said. "We were also more settled with our rotation. I used quite a few lineups during the first half and settled on one in the second half."
Mars is conveniently seeded No. 3, so the Planets and Yellowjackets are on a collision course to meet in the semifinals.
"The Class AA bracket is very competitive," Phillips said. "We have at least seven teams that have a legitimate shot of winning it all. With that many talented teams, making it back to the finals will be no easy task."
Freeport is a relatively young team, as the Yellowjackets have only three seniors on their varsity roster.
The Yellowjackets do have a four-year letter-winner, however, and three-year starter in Ashley Sample, a 5-foot-9 senior outside hitter who was voted second-team All-WPIAL Class AA last year.
"Ashley has played a significant role in all three championship matches," Phillips said. "She was a role player as a freshman, then moved into the starting lineup as a sophomore. She has a terrific vertical jump, which allows her to swing with the big dogs."
The other seniors are 5-10 middle hitter Lauren Frazetta and 5-6 opposite Danica Durand.
"Lauren is a three-year starter who broke her hand in the WPIAL title match her sophomore year," Phillips said. "Danica is a role player who is a good passer and server."
Phillips uses a nine-player rotation which includes freshman phenom Zoey Pawlak, a 5-10 outside hitter.
"Zoey is only the second freshman I've started in my 12 years," Phillips said. "The other is Carlie Bieranowski, who is now starting at Clarion University. Zoey is playing a big role for us."
Phillips has three players sharing the setter positions in the Yellowjackets' 6-2 offense, 5-5 junior Brittney Bianco, 5-6 junior Emily Toy and 5-9 sophomore Gracie Ward.
"Brittney was one of our setters last year," Phillips said. "We also use her as a back-row specialist at times. Emily and Gracie are newcomers to the varsity. Gracie also sees time on the right side when she rotates to the front row."
Megan Sweeney and Alexis Schrecengost, a pair of 5-7 junior outside hitters, round out the starting rotation. Schrecengost was a second-team all-section player last year.
Freeport entered four tournaments during the regular season. The Yellowjackets won titles at the Williamsport and Freeport tournaments. They also advanced to the semifinals at Saturday's Sharpsville Tournament, but lost to Saegertown.
As the No. 2 seed, Freeport opens the playoffs tonight at 7:30 p.m. against Blackhawk, which defeated Quaker Valley, 3-0, in a preliminary-round match Tuesday.
"This is the fourth year we've had a home site for the opening round of the playoffs," Phillips said. "It's really nice to be able to showcase the program at home."