West Xtra: Bridgers make a huge statement on volleyball court

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The Ambridge Area High School boys volleyball team avenged two losses at Saturday's Koller Classic at Central York High School and came home with the championship trophy.

"The Koller Classic is one of the best tournaments in the state," Ambridge coach Glenn Freed said. "Three of the top four Class AAA teams [in the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association state rankings] and the top three Class AA teams were in the 20-team field. Winning a tournament of this magnitude is a significant achievement."

Ambridge, ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL and PVCA rankings in Class AA, has won five WPIAL titles in the past six years. The Bridgers advanced to the PIAA title match last year before losing to Northeastern.

"Our goal every year is to win WPIAL and PIAA titles," Freed said. "We came very close to reaching both goals last year, but fell short in the state title match."

Ambridge got its rematch with Northeastern in the semifinals of the Koller Classic and posted a convincing 25-15 victory.

"Northeastern's setter [Luke Braswell] was out with shin splints, but I don't think it would have mattered if he played," Freed said. "We played much better than they did. It was only one game, but it gave the kids a measure of revenge."

The title match was a best-of-three and Ambridge faced host Central York, a team it faced in the semifinals of the Northeastern Tournament, which took place two weeks earlier.

"Central York beat us, 2-1, in the semifinals of the Northeastern Tournament, then went on to win the title with a two-game sweep of [Landisville] Hempfield," Freed said. "Hempfield beat Northeastern [2-0] in the other semifinal match. The same four teams made it to the semifinals of the Koller Classic, but with different matchups."

Central York, ranked No. 1 in Class AAA in the state, easily defeated Hempfield, 25-9, in its semifinal match, thus setting up the rematch with Ambridge. The Bridgers dominated the first game, 25-15, but Central York took the second game, 25-17. The Bridgers won the third and deciding game, 15-13, to avenge their loss in the Northeastern semifinals.

"The Koller Classic and Northeastern Tournament are two of the strongest tournaments in the state," Freed said. "We also competed in the North Allegheny Tournament and are entered in the State College Invitational [which will take place April 26]."

Those four tournaments are considered the four strongest regular-season tournaments in the state.

"I try to schedule us the best possible competition to prepare us for the postseason tournaments," Freed said. "It's a very expensive proposition, since the school does not cover our transportation and lodging expenses. Fortunately, we have a great boosters club that raises approximately $10,000 every year to cover our travel costs."

Ambridge completed the first half of play in Class AA Section 1 with a perfect 4-0 record after Monday's 3-0 sweep of Beaver County Christian. The Bridgers had a non-section match scheduled against Derry Area Wednesday night. Derry has lost to Ambridge in three of the past four WPIAL title matches.

Ambridge's nine-player rotation includes four players who were recognized on the All-WPIAL Class AA team: 6-foot-6 senior outside hitter Lee Smith, 6-5 senior outside hitter Brandon Buck, 5-9 senior setter Aaron Mueller and 6-2 senior middle hitter Dan Zajac. Smith, Buck and Mueller were voted first-team All-WPIAL Class AA, while Zajac was a second-team selection. Smith, a Penn State recruit, has been voted to the PVCA All-State team three times.

"If he's not the best player in the state, Lee has to be considered one of the top three," Freed said. "Having three quality hitters such as Lee, Brandon and Dan on the frontline gives us a very potent offense."

Logan Campbell, a 6-2 senior middle hitter, and Shawn Butter, a 6-4 senior middle hitter, are also returning lettermen for the Bridgers.

Newcomers to the starting rotation are 5-10 junior libero Mitch Brewer, 6-1 defensive specialist Luke Fritz and 5-11 sophomore utility player Derek Kuhn.

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