South Xtra: Upper St. Clair earns a playoff berth

HIGH SCHOOL VOLLEYBALL


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The Upper St. Clair High School boys volleyball team experienced a roller coaster ride last week.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, the week ended on a "dip".

The Panthers upset Class AAA Section 1 leader Bethel Park on Tuesday. A five-set thriller ended with Upper St. Clair handing Bethel Park its first section loss of the season.

"I knew going in that we could beat them if we kept it close," Upper St. Clair coach Jack Zebo said. "We played well down the stretch."

The euphoria of beating the section front-runner was quickly doused by Thursday's 3-0 sweep by Peters Township.

"I think the kids were a little gassed for that match," said Zebo, now in his 15th season at USC. "The kids put their heart and soul into beating Bethel Park. Facing the top two teams in the section in the same week was a lot to ask."

As the final week of the regular season unfolds, Upper St. Clair has an 8-3 record in Section 1, which leaves the Panthers in third place. They have also qualified for the WPIAL playoffs for the ninth consecutive year.

"I knew Bethel Park and Peters Township were the teams to beat coming into the season," Zebo said. "Both have a standout player. Bethel has Grant Underwood, and Peters has Gabe Pritz.

"That's the big difference between us and them. We don't have a standout player of their caliber."

Bethel Park leads the section with a 10-1 record and second-place Peters Township is 9-2. Baldwin (6-5) has clinched Section 1's fourth playoff berth.

"Our final section match is [tonight] against Moon," Zebo said. "We're looking forward to the playoffs."

Upper St. Clair is No. 7 in this week's WPIAL Class AAA rankings.

"North Allegheny is clearly the team to beat," said Zebo, referring to the six-time defending champions. "The teams from No. 2 to No. 8 are very close."

Upper St. Clair's varsity roster includes five players who returned with varsity experience, 6-foot-3 senior outside hitter Aidan Leahy, 6-5 senior middle hitter James Ferriss, 6-2 senior setter Michael Lynch, 6-0 senior setter Sean Mackey and 6-2 senior outside hitter Robert Joseph.

Lynch has been out of the lineup for a couple weeks and is not expected back for the playoffs. Mackey and Kyle Austin, a 5-10 junior, have stepped in to fill in for Lynch.

"Sean was a role player last year, mostly as an outside hitter," Zebo said. "Kyle had no previous varsity experience. We've experimented with a 6-2 offense, but I prefer to use a 5-1. Both have stepped in and done and done a great job."

Zebo's 11-man rotation also includes six newcomers to the varsity, 6-9 senior middle/opposite Chris Howie, 6-2 senior outside hitter Robert Joseph, 5-9 senior defensive specialist Billy Sukitch, 6-0 junior middle hitter Jarrod Browne, 6-4 junior outside/opposite Mitchell Boring, and 5-10 sophomore libero/back-row specialist William Smith.

"We don't have a go-to hitter," Zebo said. "We have a lot of interchangeable parts. We're pretty balanced. One night it's our outside hitters who are the top hitters, then our opposites will be the most effective hitters the next match. It changes from match to match."

The WPIAL playoffs begin next week. The WPIAL Volleyball Steering Committee meets Monday to determine the brackets. Tournament play is scheduled to begin the following day.

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