North Xtra: WPIAL champion Mars turns table on No. 1 volleyball seed
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When the Mars Area High School girls volleyball team faced Hopewell in the championship match of the Midwestern Athletic Conference Big Schools Tournament, on Sept. 22, both coaches wondered if that match would be a preview of the WPIAL Class AA title match.
That turned out to be the case as both advanced to Saturday's WPIAL title match at Chartiers Valley High School, but this time the results were reversed.
Hopewell defended its MAC tournament title with a 25-18, 25-23 victory against Mars in a best-of-three final.
"We were still trying to find the best lineup when we played them in the MAC tournament," said Planets senior Jaden Zimmer. "We may have lost that match, but both games were close."
Mars got a chance to avenge that loss in the WPIAL title match and the Planets made the most of it by sweeping Hopewell, 3-0, in the best-of-five championship match.
"We adjusted a lot better today," Zimmer said. "We were more confident. We were ready."
It was the first WPIAL title for Mars. In fact, the Planets were making their first appearance in a title match.
"I'm really excited because we came in as the underdog," said Mars senior Emily King, referring to the fact that Hopewell was the defending champion and top seed, while Mars was seeded No. 3. "We kind of like the underdog role. It pushed us to be better."
Hopewell held a 10-9 lead in the first set, but Mars scored 11 of the next 14 points to take a 20-13 lead and eventually won 25-21. The Planets were equally impressive in the next two sets, winning 25-18 and 25-17.
"These girls are never satisfied," Mars coach Dan Mountain said. "They worked hard this entire year. They improved during September and October more than any team I've coached. They got better as a team and improved as the season went on."
Senior Abby Matusik led Mars with 16 kills in the championship match.
"It's amazing. We've wanted this for so long," said Matusik after accepting her gold medal. "The feeling is just unreal. We never expected this. We've been working so long for this goal. It's incredible to finally reach it."
Zimmer added 14 kills, while King contributed 10.
"It's such an amazing feeling," Zimmer said. "I've wanted this for the past four years. To finally get it, I couldn't ask for any more."
It was the fourth consecutive playoff match in which Mars swept its opponent. The Planets posted 3-0 victories against Kittanning in the first round, South Fayette in the quarterfinals, and Ambridge in the semifinals, to earn their first title berth.
"The seniors on this team were in seventh grade when I took over the program," Mountain said. "To watch them grow into WPIAL champions during the past six years is something special. And to win the title without losing a set is even more impressive."
Matusik was also surprised by the Planets' domination of the bracket.
"It's amazing that we didn't lose a set in the playoffs," Matusik said.
With one goal accomplished, Matusik and her teammates have moved on to another goal -- the PIAA title.
"Hopefully, our success will continue in the state tournament," King said. "We go in as the underdog."
Mars defeated Indiana, the fourth-place team from the WPIAL, in the first round on Tuesday, winning 3-1. The Planets will face District 10 runner-up Meadville Saturday in the quarterfinals.
"Winning a PIAA title is one of our goals," Matusik said. "It can be accomplished."