Ambridge's comeback in the WPIAL Class AA title match may not have been as impressive as the Bridgers improbable comeback in 2012, but it still resulted in a title.
In 2012, Ambridge rallied from a 2-0 deficit with three straight victories to defeat Derry in the WPIAL title match.
Fast forward to the 2014 final, held at Baldwin High School, and the two teams were once again facing off for the WPIAL title.
"It wasn't like it was two years ago when we came back after losing the first two sets," said Ambridge senior Dan Zajac, after collecting his third WPIAL gold medal. "We just refocused and worked on our gameplan. The key was that we didn't panic."
Derry held a 22-19 advantage in the first set and was serving for game point with a 24-22 lead, but Ambridge battled back to pull out a 29-27 victory.
"I tell the guys all the time to just worry about the next serve," Ambridge coach Glenn Freed said. "It doesn't matter what the score is, just worry about the next serve. When you're working hard good things will happen."
The same thing happened in the second set, but Derry built an even bigger lead, 23-17. Ambridge scored nine of the last ten points to pull out a 26-24 victory and take a commanding 2-0 lead.
"That great comeback in the second set really shows how we work together as a team," said Ambridge senior outside hitter Brandon Buck, who recorded 16 kills. "We never give up, regardless of the score. It doesn't matter what the score is. You can always come back and win if you work together as a team."
"To come back from all that is pretty ridiculous," said Ambridge outside hitter Lee Smith, a Penn State recruit who led the Bridgers with 18 kills. "Our team just played together when we really needed to."
The third set was also close, as the two teams traded points until the score was tied 17-17. At that point, the Bridgers outscored the Trojans 8-3 to pull out a 25-20 victory.
"I have so much faith in our players," said Ambridge setter Aaron Mueller, who recorded 41 assists for the Bridgers. "No matter who we are playing, I believe we can come back and win, no matter what the score is."
The victory earned Ambridge its third consecutive WPIAL Class AA title and sixth in seven years.
"Three times in a row. It's an amazing feeling," Smith said. "But I don't think anything can match our first title. We had to come back from a 2-0 deficit to beat them."
Ambridge made a return trip to the PIAA title match, but experienced a bad case of deja vu.
The Bridgers faced District 3 champion Northeastern for the second straight year in the Class AA title match and had to settle for second best again.
"Losing in the state championship match really hurts, especially since it's my senior year," said Smith, a four-year starter for the Bridgers.
Ambridge dropped a 3-1 decision to Northeastern in last year's title match. 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 selection on the first team of the WPIAL Class AA All-Star Team. "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 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."
Smith led Ambridge with 12 kills in Saturday's match, while Zajac and Buck contributed six each. Mueller led the Brigers 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."
Freed used a nine player rotation, which includes two underclassmen: junior libero Mitch Brewer and sophomore outside/middle hitter Derek Kuhn.
OLSH Earns Second PIAA Berth
Shaughn McDonald performed in front of large crowds numerous times during his volleyball career at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
McDonald's final performance in front of a crowd at the Coraopolis based high school was much different, as he delivered the Valedictorian speech for the Chargers "Class of 2014".
"I was more nervous for that speech than any volleyball match I've played," McDonald said. "Fortunately, the speech went very well."
The same is true for McDonald's volleyball career. He was voted to the first team of the WPIAL Class AA All-Star Team all four years and will be a three-time member of the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association All-State Team. The 2014 PVCA All-State Team hasn't been announced yet, but McDonald was selected the past two years, so it would be a huge surprise if he didn't appear for a third time.
"My wife and I are so proud of what Shaughn was able to accomplish during his high school career as an athlete and as a student," said Mike McDonald, who is Shaughn's father and coach. "Having him deliver the Valedictorian speech was a great way to end his four years at OLSH."
Shaughn McDonald was one of six members of the Chargers volleyball team who graduated on Sunday.
"Five of the six were starters, so we have some rebuilding to do for next year," coach McDonald said.
The 2014 Chargers squad turned in the best season in school history. They tied for second place in Section 1 and placed third in the WPIAL Class AA Tournament, thus earning a second consecutive berth in the PIAA Tournament.
"Last year, we were a Cinderella story as we came on at the end of the season and qualified for the state tournament," coach McDonald said. "This year, we were a serious contender all year long."
OLSH almost pulled a major upset in the opening round of the PIAA Tournament. The Chargers posted victories of 26-24 and 25-23 in the first and third sets against Cochranton, the District 10 champion and favorite. Cochranton reboudned with wins of 25-15 and 25-19 in the second and fourth sets, then pulled out the final set 15-9 to avoid the upset.
"I told the kids that we all hate losing and that I'm disappointed for you, but not disappointed in you," coach McDonald said. "They were just a slight bit better than us. That says a lot about our team because most of our kids have two years or less of volleyball experience. Cochranton's whole team has been playing volleyball since sixth grade.
"A lot of people thought we would be three and out against Cochranton. We actually had a shot to win at the end, but just couldn't close it out. That's something to be proud of."
The other five seniors on McDonalds' squad are: outside hitter Alex Ritter, middle hitter Nick Metz, opposite Kendall Paige, setter Ian Alexander, and serving specialist Jay Pflugh. Ritter was voted to the second team of the WPIAL All-Star Team for the second straight year. Paige was voted to the third team for the first time.