MECHANICSBURG, Pa. – All summer long, Elk County Catholic and West Branch saw each other.
Those matches were laidback affairs with scores not even being kept.
On Saturday, they will meet again. But, this time, everything is on the line, and scores will most definitely be kept.
The Crusaders and the Warriors will square off for the PIAA Class 1A girls’ volleyball title at 10:30 a.m. at Cumberland Valley High School.
“We are on a first-name basis with those girls,” ECC head coach Tricia Bauer said. “Knowing them as well as we do and them knowing us as well as they do can be a slippery slope. We know each other’s tendencies. We know how to beat each other. There is a calmness about what to expect out of each other’s teams. At the same time, there is a little bit of nervousness playing against people you are so familiar with. It is a little nerve-wracking. Terry (West Branch head coach Terry Trude) and I have been talking after every PIAA playoff game congratulating each other on taking the next step. Now we will see each other in this game. I don’t think I have ever coached against a team I know this well. I have already started watching film, and I feel like I am watching a team I have seen play all season. But, I really haven’t seen them play.”
Not only do the teams know each other from the summer, they have met twice in tournaments this season with West Branch winning a one-set game against ECC, 27-25, on Sept. 16 at the St. Francis Tournament, and the Warriors taking a 2-1 (22-25, 25-17, 15-6) victory on Oct. 21 at the ECC Tournament.
“We are very familiar with each other,” Trude said. “Her (Tricia’s) daughter played for our club team, Slam. We are good friends.”
With such familiarity, both coaches believe the team that plays cleaner volleyball will hoist the state championship trophy.
“Seeing each other every week during the summer and playing each other, you look for tendencies,” Trude said. “Tricia knows what we do, and we know what they do. Whoever executes and is able to work through things is the team that is going to win.”
Bauer believes the team with the fewest errors will become champions.
“Both know each other’s girls, know each other’s tendencies,” Bauer said. “The team that makes the least amount of mistakes will win. Both are solid teams all the way around, both are very well coached, and both have players with never-say-die attitudes. Both teams are very similar.”
The one area where West Branch might hold the edge is in experience.
The Warriors played for the state championship a year ago losing to Maplewood, 3-0 (24-26, 21-25, 11-25), and return all but two players from that team including five seniors.
“I think it is both an advantage and a disadvantage,” Trude said. “We are familiar with the setup, the travel, the preparation. I think that is an advantage. I think the disadvantage is pressure. Is it too much pressure after playing in it last year? You need luck. You need people to stay injury-free, Someone may be off (their game). Someone might be on. I feel we are prepared. I feel ECC is prepared. They are very athletic, and I feel we are pretty even. Whoever has the better day will win.”
Bauer said she knows West Branch has eyed being back in the state championship match since its loss a year ago.
“They work really, really hard year-round on their skills,” Bauer said. “They play travel ball together. They have big expectations on them, and it could be a lot of pressure. But, also, they have been there before and know the pressure of playing on that court, on TV, in front of all those people.”
While West Branch expected to be at this point, ECC might still be pinching itself that it is playing for the state title.
The Lady Crusaders had knocked on the door in District 9 the last three years losing in the finals in 2020 to eventual state champion Clarion and in 2022 to state semifinalist Oswayo Valley while also losing in the 2021 D9 semifinals, and came into the season with hopes of finally breaking through with a D9 title.
They accomplished that, their first since 1996, with a 3-0 win over top-seeded Clarion-Limestone but even that didn’t guarantee a long ride in the PIAA playoffs for a school that hadn’t been to a PIAA title match since 1986.
Not with a deep and talented western side of the bracket in front of them.
But a 3-1 win over Homer-Center, the D6 runner-up, was followed with a 3-0 sweep of WPIAL champion Serra Catholic leading into a semifinal encounter with D10 champion and defending state champ Maplewood, who ousted ECC in the first round of the 2022 PIAA playoffs.
Another 3-0 win pushed the Crusaders to the title game.
“I knew we had the talent in us,” Bauer said. “But I was also worried that we had lost three big players – both of our middles and our Libero, from last year. I knew we had the opportunity coming into the season, but I didn’t know if we could come together and make it work. Part of what you need to win is to be mentally strong, to be really good teammates, and to trust each other. Did we have that mental toughness because you can’t win without it?”
Bauer said her team’s ability to never look ahead and to play at an even keel has played a big role in its success.
“I don’t think any of us wanted to look too far ahead,” Bauer said. “These girls never even really celebrated the District 9 title. They just said let’s get on the bus and go get something to eat. Even after beating Serra Catholic on Saturday, they had their cheer and then they said they were hungry and wanted to go eat. We never let ourselves look that far ahead because I think we were afraid of falling short. I knew we could do it, but never let myself think that way.”
Bauer said the first sign of emotion she saw from her team came after the win against Maplewood in the semifinals.
“I think that was the first time I saw tears in their eyes,” Bauer said. “The bus ride home was a little loud. Even on the way to the match, it was loud. I think they let their guard down and let themselves enjoy it for the first time. But I am still like, is this really happening? Did we really do this? It just seems natural that this is where we are supposed to be.”
Bauer said if she can pinpoint one major difference from past seasons with her team it is their maturity, especially with senior leaders like Tori Newton, Reagan Bauer, Lucy Klawuhn, and Kiri Emmert.
“What’s different from last year to this year is we are very mature, very composed,” Tricia Bauer said. “These girls don’t care about the fluff like team dinners and that sort of thing. They like them, but they are more concerned with what they do on the court than what they do outside the court. They are very much in control of their emotions, very aware of their court presence and how they represent ECC. They all know how to hold themselves and prepare themselves mentally. I definitely think that plays a role. I definitely think it makes a huge difference in their composure and in the game.”
The four aforementioned seniors all have played key roles in getting ECC to the state championship.
Newton, the PAVCA District 9 Class 1A Player of the Year, is the leading hitter with 311 kills (around 4.7 per set) while Bauer checks in with 229 kills (around 3.5 per set). Klawuhn can also attack from the outside while being one of the top defenders for ECC. She is coming off a 16-dig performance in the semifinals.
“It is really about their experience and their senior leadership,” Tricia Bauer said. “Tori has been playing outside hitter since she was a sophomore. Reagan had to work her way into the lineup and started on the right side as a sophomore and had to get stronger before progressing and moving to the left side. Reagan loves to swing. Tori loves to swing too, but she also likes to place the ball and find the holes. Having strong outside hitters is important. We look at a lot of teams we beat, and they have one strong outside hitter. No matter who we have, I have confidence in them.”
Emmert might be the best story of the seniors.
As a freshman, she refused to set, even in junior varsity, according to Tricia Bauer, who was the JV coach at the time, and now she is a 1,000-set setter, including 645 this season (around 9.8 per set).
“Her freshman year she refused to set,” Tricia Bauer said. “She basically said no thank you and didn’t even set on JV. Her sophomore season, I moved up to varsity (head coach) and the new JV coach told her you are setting, we don’t have anyone else. Even from last year she has really, really developed mentally as a much tougher setter. She is super intelligent and very hard on herself. She is a big perfectionist, and I think it is more devastating to her than it is to the team when she makes a mistake. Last year was more about building a mentality that you are going to make mistakes, and this year she is so strong physically and mentally that she has become a calming presence. I don’t know if people know how far she has come since her sophomore year and how much she has developed the last two years. It has been huge and incredible.”
While the seniors are a big reason ECC is in the position it is in, a younger player who has stepped her game up as the season has progressed is Payton Newton, Tori’s younger sister, a sophomore.
Payton Newton recorded five or more kills just once before Oct. 5 but has had at least five kills in 7 of the 11 matches since then.
“Last year Payton sat on our bench as a setter,” Tricia Bauer said. “She didn’t get a whole lot of opportunities as a freshman. At the JV level, they ran a 6-2 and she was a setter and an outside hitter. When she came up this year, we had to figure out who our middles were. We weren’t initially going to use her as a middle but then we said let’s put Payton in the middle. That’s a tough transition going from the outside to the middle. All through the summer, we worked with her, and I believe she also put in a lot of time outside the gym. But that is a big transition, and it took a while. Toward October, at the end of September, we knew that people were going to key on our outside and we had to get our middles more involved in the attack. That is something we really focused on. We needed to do a better job spreading out the attack to both Payton and (junior) Ashlynn Schutz.”
While the Crusader offense is easy to see, it has been the ECC defense that has really carried the day for the team during the PIAA playoffs.
ECC has gotten to a lot of balls that people probably didn’t expect them to get to and have passed well enough to stay in system most of the time.
“I think it is the work they put in on defense,” Tricia Bauer said. “When we scout, we pick up on tendencies and adjust our defense. But on top of that, some of these girls have grown up in volleyball families, touching volleyballs, playing for a very long time. They have learned to reach the ball very well. They have learned to read the hitter. These girls have natural instincts and can change without being told. Sometimes they can coach themselves. I trust them and know they make really good decisions. They can read the game very well. They study the game. They are students of volleyball.”
Senior middle hitter Katrina Chowder paces West Branch’s offense.
Chowder has 57 kills in three PIAA playoff matches including a 28-kill, six-block effort in a 3-1 quarterfinal victory over Covenant Christian Academy.
She also had 18 kills and three blocks in a 3-1 semifinal win over Mount Calvary Christian after recording 11 kills in a 3-0 win over Clarion-Limestone in the opening round.
Chowder is joined up front by outside hitter Marely Croyle, who had seven kills in the semifinals and 11 in the first-round win over C-L.
The Warriors like to run a two-setter offense with Brooklyn Myers recording 29 set assists in the win over Mount Calvary Christian and 17 in the victory over C-L, while Kyla Kephart had 34 set assists in the quarterfinal win, 14 in the semifinals, and 10 in the opening round.
Junior middle Makiya Mack as well as sophomore outside hitter Bella Koleno have played key roles in the semifinal victory with Mack recording six kills and three blocks and Koleno five kills.
“We have experience,” Trude said. “We talk about that quite a bit. We have five seniors this year who are certainly battle-tested. I think our Slam Volleyball Club has been helpful for us. It has developed kids throughout the years, and this group has been special. They have worked hard and their volleyball IQ is very high. They have always worried about being relevant, and they have put in the time. They are all good leaders, and that makes it a special group that is easy to get along with. They are good role models for the whole team.”
NOTES: This is West Branch’s second time in the state title match after losing last year to Maplewood … ECC is making its third appearance. The Lady Crusaders lost to Maplewood, 2-0, in 1985, and to Richland, 2-0, in 1986 … ECC is trying to become the fourth District 9 team to win a PIAA volleyball championship but the first not from Clarion. The Lady Cats won PIAA titles in Class 1A in 2012 (three-class system), 2020 (four-class system), and 2021 (four-class system) … ECC is the ninth District 9 team to reach a PIAA state title game. In addition to Clarion’s titles, the Lady Cats were PIAA 1A runner-ups in 2010 and 2011 in the old three-class system … ECC was runner-up in 1985 and 1986 in Class 2A in the old two-class system, and Kane was runner-up in 1988 in Class 2A in the old two-class system … West Branch is aiming to be the first District 6 champion since Northern Cambria won back-to-back titles in 1A in 2018 and 2019. Bald Eagle also won a 2A title in 2018 … The summer league that ECC and West Branch played in also included Philipsburg-Osceola, which is playing for a PIAA Class 2A title in the match right after the 1A match. D9 3A champion DuBois was also in that league as was D9 1A runner-up and PIAA qualifier Clarion-Limestone leading Trude to remark that iron must sharpen iron.