It was no surprise to see Ambridge Area and Northeastern as the two finalists in the PIAA Class AA volleyball title match on Saturday at Penn State's Multi-Sport Facility.
The two squads were the top two teams in the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association Class AA rankings all season. It was just a question of which was the better team. Unfortunately for the Bridgers, they were the team that had to settle for the runner-up trophy.
"I've always dreamed of this day, but with a different outcome," said senior libero Cody Brooks, a three-year starter. "Both teams played one heck of a match. I think we started a little bit slow, but what can you do?"
Brooks was correct in pointing out that Ambridge started out slowly. Northeastern jumped out to a commanding 8-1 lead in the first game and won with relative ease, 25-15.
"We didn't come out strong," said junior Lee Smith, the WPIAL's Class AA most valuable player. "We weren't putting the balls away the way we were supposed to. That definitely hurt us."
Ambridge rebounded to win the second set, 25-23. But the joy was short lived, as Northeastern recorded back-to-back 25-22 victories to foil the Bridgers' goal of winning a state title.
"It's an awesome experience to play in the state title match," Smith said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing to win a state title, and we came so close. It hurts to come this far and have to settle for second best."
Trying to hold back the tears, Brooks passed on one last message to his teammates.
"I couldn't imagine spending my senior year with any other team," Brooks said. "Win or lose, they are my family. We were the second best team in the state [in Class AA] and that's something to be proud of. It was a heck of a ride and I'll never forget it."
Ambridge coach Glenn Freed was disappointed, but also very proud of his team.
"We played a great match, but Northeastern was even better," Ambridge coach Glenn Freed said. "It's disappointing to come this far and fall short, but I'm very proud of my kids. We reached every goal, except for winning this match."
Freed felt especially bad for his five seniors, Brooks, Andrew Stojan, John Gottron, Trent Munk and Ben Ricco.
"You always feel bad for the seniors," Freed said. "I really wanted to win the title for them. They did a great job. I'm really proud of them."
Smith led Ambridge with 26 kills in the championship match, while Brandon Buck had 10. Setter Aaron Mueller had 39 assists and Brooks had seven digs.
"That's a great team over there that's well coached," Northeastern coach Matt Wilson said.
"They were certainly deserving of a gold medal on any other day. You hate to see either team lose in this scenario. Both teams were worthy of the title, but somebody had to lose."
Northeastern had four players record seven or more kills. And a freshman, Reese Devilbiss, was the Bobcats' leader with 20 kills. Stephen Braswell added 17 kills, while Phillip White and Malik Jefferson added 9 and 7, respectively.
"We have a capable attacker at almost every position," Wilson said. "And our middle attack became far more productive as the season went on. That opened up things for our outside hitters even more."
Northeastern, located in Manchester, York County, had four seniors on its roster, but only two [Braswell and Jefferson] played in the championship match.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see both teams back in the finals next year," Wilson said.
Ambridge has three of its top attackers returning in Smith, Buck, and Dan Zajac, along with setter Aaron Mueller.
"Now that they have a taste of playing in the state finals, it will make them work even harder," Freed said. "I'm looking forward to that, because they worked so hard to get here."
Ambridge earned its title berth with sweeps of Meadville in the opening round, Saegertown in the quarterfinals and Derry Area in the semifinals.