Ambridge Area senior Justin Gleason had already experienced the euphoria of winning a WPIAL boys volleyball title, but this time around was much different.
"This is clearly the most memorable game in my life," said Gleason, after the Bridgers claimed their fourth WPIAL Class AA title in five years with a come-from-behind 3-2 victory against Derry Area last Friday at Chartiers Valley High School.
"I had a feeling going in that this match would be memorable and that it would be emotional. I knew going in that this would be the day. I've never been this emotional, this happy in my life. I'm surprised I haven't had a heart attack considering how the match went."
Gleason, the Bridgers setter since 2009, is the only senior on Ambridge's roster.
"We won my sophomore year, but we had Nick [Goodell]," continued Gleason, referring to a redshirt freshman at Penn State, who was a senior during Gleason's varsity debut. "That was his team and I went along for the ride. This was my team."
Gleason's first appearance in the finals was much easier as the Bridgers swept Deer Lakes, 3-0, to claim their third consecutive WPIAL title.
This time, Gleason and his teammates found themselves in an unfamiliar situation, as Derry jumped out to a commanding 2-0 lead with victories of 25-18 and 25-14. Gleason blamed himself for the Bridgers slow start.
"I knew I was playing bad. It wasn't the team. It was me," said Gleason, who recorded 44 assists during the championship match. "I choked and my teammates kept picking me up.
"When we got to the third set, I looked at the guys and said this game's to three. We had won every other match in section and the playoffs in three, so winning three in a row was something we had done many times before. We just concentrated on the remaining three games and knew we had to win all three."
And that's just what the Bridgers did. They rebounded with a dominating 25-12 victory in the third set, then pulled out a 25-23 victory in the fourth set. Gleason took charge and started feeding his favorite target, sophomore Lee Smith.
"Lee was off in the first game, too, but in the second game he started dominating like he has all season," Ambridge coach Glenn Freed said. "You can see the drive in his face. He was going after every ball. That was great."
Smith, a Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association Finest 40 All-Star last season as a freshman, showed why he is the best player in WPIAL Class AA. He recorded 29 kills, skillfully changing the speed of his spikes. In fact, many of his kills were recorded on carefully placed dinks.
"[Smith] changed the speed of his hits very well," Derry coach Shawn Spencer said. "That had us on our heels a number of times."
Spencer felt his team did a good job of defending against Smith.
"We did a decent job with Smith," Spencer said. "He's going to get his kills no matter what you do against him. He's a phenomenal player. The bottom line is that we had our chances and didn't convert on them."
Ambridge concluded its impressive comeback with a 15-8 victory in the fifth set.
"Volleyball is a game of momentum," Spencer said. "They got the momentum going in the third game. When you feed off momentum, it can be a dangerous thing."
Smith said the Bridgers were nervous with such a young lineup.
"We came out real nervous," said Smith, who also had six blocks for points. "When the third set came around, we knew we had to play so much better than the first two sets. We came out harder and showed how to play Ambridge volleyball."
Dan Zajac, a sophomore middle hitter, recorded 10 kills.
"We were down, but I knew we weren't out of it," Zajac said. "I really thought we would pull through. We always play well under pressure."
Zajac was very impressed with Gleason's leadership qualities.
"Justin is the glue that keeps us all together," Zajac said. "We're all young and wild. He keeps us under control. He's a great leader."
The next goal for Gleason and his teammates is to win a PIAA title. The Bridgers faced Manheim Central, the fourth-place finisher from District 3, in the first round on Tuesday and posted a 3-0 victory.
That earns Ambridge a berth in the quarterfinal round robin, which begins Friday morning at Penn State University's Multi-Sport Indoor Facility.
"There is some really good competition out East, but I think we can do well," Smith said. "We got to see some of the teams we might face at the Central York and State College tournaments, so we know what to expect."
York Suburban is No. 1 in the PVCA state rankings, Bethlehem Catholic is second and Ambridge third.
Montour fell one win short of gaining a PIAA berth, after losing to Deer Lakes in three sets (25-21, 25-16, 25-13) in the third-place consolation match.