West Xtra: Sequel has same results for Ambridge volleyball team

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UNIVERSITY PARK -- The Ambridge Area High School boys volleyball team lived through a replay Saturday at the PIAA championships, but this one didn't involve a jumbotron or umpires or referees reviewing a close play.

This was simply a replay of last year's state championship match ... and unfortunately for the Bridgers, it had the same result.

The Bridgers faced District 3 champion Northeastern for the second year in a row in the Class AA title match -- although at a different site this year, Penn State's Rec Hall -- and had to settle for second best again.

"Losing in the state championship match really hurts, especially since it's my senior year," said senior outside hitter Lee Smith, a four-year starter for the Bridgers.

Ambridge dropped a 3-1 decision to Northeastern in last year's title match, which was also played at Penn State but in a different venue, the university's Multi-Sport Facility. The Bridgers had hoped to avenge the loss on Saturday, but it wasn't meant to be, as the Panthers recorded a three-game sweep.

"[Northeastern] did a great job," Ambridge coach Glenn Freed said. "We kept trying to get into our game and they kept stopping us with everything that we were doing. That's why they are the state champions. They are such a great team.

"We fought as hard as we could and kept battling every point. I'm so proud of my team. They didn't quit, but Northeastern was too good."

Ambridge matched Northeastern point for point in the first two sets until they reached the midpoint of each set. The two teams were tied at 11-11 in each set, but Northeastern dominated from that point on in both sets, recording a 25-20 win in the first set and a 25-15 blowout in the second set.

Northeastern took charge in the third set and clinched the victory with an impressive 25-14 decision.

"[Northeastern] just put it all together today and played a great match," Freed said. "Volleyball is a game of momentum and they carried the momentum most of the match. Even when we got a couple points, they seemed to battle back."

Playing at Rec Hall had special meaning for Smith, a Penn State recruit.

"I came into this gym with fire in my stomach," said Smith, a four-time All-WPIAL Class AA first-team selection. "I looked around, it's awesome to be here. I'm going to be here next year and I can't wait for that."

Smith's future teammate Nick Goodell was in attendance. Goodell graduated from Ambridge when Smith was in eighth grade, then redshirted as a freshman.

"It will be great to be on the same team with Nick for the first time," Smith said. "It's an awesome feeling to be here. My first match [in Rec Hall] wasn't with Penn State, but it was with my brothers."

Smith may be disappointed with the loss, but he's proud of what the Bridgers have been able to accomplish during his high school career.

"We won three WPIAL titles and placed second in the state twice," Smith said. "That's something to be proud of."

Freed echoed those thoughts.

"Overall, we had a great season," Freed said. "This group of seniors won a third consecutive WPIAL title and were the second best team in the state for the second year in a row. That's quite an accomplishment. I'm very proud of them."

Smith led Ambridge with 12 kills in Saturday's match, while opposite Dan Zajac and outside hitter Brandon Buck contributed six each. Setter Aaron Mueller led the Bridgers with 21 assists and four digs.

"Lee Smith will be playing at Penn State," said Freed, when asked who would be playing volleyball in college. "Brandon Buck is going to St. Francis, and Shawn Mueller is going to Penn State-Behrend. Dan Zajac will be playing football at Delaware State."

Smith, Buck, Zajac and Mueller are four of seven seniors in Ambridge's starting rotation. The other three seniors are middle hitters Shawn Butter and Logan Campbell and defensive specialist Luke Fritz.

"We have a very talented senior class," Freed said. "They will be missed.

"While every year is a rebuilding year, next season will be a particularly big one. Next season's senior and junior classes will need to fill the voids left by some great student-athletes. We had some great underclassmen this year, so I am confident that our future will still be bright and they will continue the great tradition of volleyball at Ambridge."

Freed used a nine-player rotation, which included two underclassmen, junior libero Mitch Brewer and sophomore outside/middle hitter Derek Kuhn.

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