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Maplewood Looks to Put Cherry on Top of Great Season when it Faces West Branch in PIAA 1A Volleyball Title Match Saturday

Sadie Thomas (left) and Bailey Varndell (right) have helped lead Maplewood into the PIAA 1A title game. Photo courtesy of Maplewood volleyball

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. – It’s time to put the cherry on top of the cake for the Maplewood volleyball team.

The D10 champion Tigers will be going for their sixth PIAA crown when they play District 6 champion West Branch in the PIAA Class 1A championship game at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg.

“Sadie Thomas (Maplewood’s star outside hitter) said (getting to the championship game) is icing on the cake so let’s just put the cherry on top,” Maplewood’s 35th-year head coach Sheila Bancroft said. “It’s a hard road just getting to this point. They are now at the end. The last few weeks have been long and tiring. They’ve been through a lot, and it comes down to one match. We are telling them to just enjoy it. Take it slow and enjoy every moment. We talked about the little things. The other team is experiencing the same thing. All year we talked about how this could be the last match. There are no ifs this time. This is the last match.”

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Maplewood, which is looking for its first PIAA title since taking home its first-ever 1A crown in 2017 (the other four came in 2A with Bancroft at the helm of the last four overall titles), has swept its way into the championship match.

           

The Tigers are 9-0 in sets in PIAA play having beaten District 9 runner-up Elk County Catholic, District 6 runner-up Homer-Center, and District 9 champion Oswayo Valley 3-0 in each of the PIAA matchups.

Going back to the District 10 postseason, Maplewood has won 18 consecutive postseason sets and 23 overall sets in a row since dropping the third set to Cochranton in a regular-season showdown at the Woodshed Oct. 18.

In fact, the only five sets the Tigers (21-1) have lost all season in non-tournament play were to the rival Cardinals, who handed Maplewood its only loss of the year, 3-0, Sept. 27.

It was the loss at Cochranton that might have been the catalyst for a state-championship match run.

“When they swept us in three, we went back to the gym the next day and changed things,” Bancroft said. “Our whole lineup changed. We said this wasn’t going to work. What we were doing was too complicated, too complex. We needed to get back to basics, to square one, and start over. When we turned around and played them (Oct. 18) it was a fabulous match, and we learned from that. If you keep playing a good team over and over, you learn more about them and feel more confident each time you face them.”

If playing Cochranton multiple times helped Maplewood feel more confident against the Cardinals, beating their rival in the District 10 championship game gave their coach reason to believe a run to the state title game was a real possibility.

“I believe whoever won District 10 had the opportunity (to make a run), where it be them or us,” Bancroft said.

While getting to a state championship match is nothing new for Maplewood – this is, after all, the Tigers’ ninth trip to a state title match – it is something new for its opponent.

West Branch (23-0) has never played for a state title.

The closest the Warriors got was in 2010 and 2011 when they reached the then pool-play round of the state championship in Class 1A but failed to advance out of pool play to the championship game. That included a 2-1 loss to Maplewood in the 2010 pool play at Central York High School.

In fact, West Branch made just its fifth-ever appearance in the PIAA postseason this year compared to Maplewood, which made its 29th appearance this season.

 

           

 

But history is history, and the present is the present.

And in the present, West Branch provides a formidable foe for the Tigers.

“They don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Bancroft said. “They are smart. They know where to put the ball at the right time. They are very consistent, very few errors happen on their side of the net. They are going to make you earn your points and are not going to give you anything.”

The Warriors are on a roll.

They have rarely been pushed going to more than three sets just three times all year – all five-set wins – including a 3-2 come-from-behind win over Homer-Center in the District 6 title game that saw them rally from an 0-2 deficit to take home the D6 crown.

“They remind me of Cochranton minus Devyn Sokol (the Cardinals’ great middle),” Bancroft said. “They are very scrappy and consistent. I think serving will be a key for us. They also remind me of Elk County Catholic. What little I have watched of them, they are very impressive. With the few mistakes they have made on the floor, we can’t afford to make errors. There will be no easy points. We will have to play flawlessly and earn our points.”

Both teams, as one would expect at this time of year, have great hitters, setters, and defensive players as well as key role players.

For Maplewood, it starts with Thomas, the senior outside hitter.

Thomas averages 6.8 kills per set while hitting .319. She has an all-around game with 3.7 digs per set and 1.6 aces per set while also coming away with 24 blocks.

“She is strong,” Bancroft said. “She is a unique female athlete with a lot of strength. She also has a good head on her shoulders and works for everything she gets. She has worked hard in the offseason on her own to become the player she is.”

Thomas, though, can’t do it all by herself.

It takes a team to win championships, and she has a strong one around her, according to Bancroft.

“Sadie is very fortunate and lucky to be on the team she is on,” Bancroft said. “A lot of great athletes are not surrounded by a great team. (Her teammates) make her what she is and she makes them what they are. You have to pass the ball great and set the ball great and play great defense. You need her out there, but she doesn’t need to be relied upon all the time to put the ball away.”

Thomas is the beneficiary of a really good setter in Bailey Varndell.

Varndell averages 12.1 set assists per match and has added 83 kills (1.2 per set) to go with 100 aces and 193 digs (2.8 per set).

“Your setter is like your point guard in basketball, your quarterback,” Bancroft said. “She is our leader. She does everything. She will touch the ball on every play. You have to have someone who is smart and reliable. She is very reliable. She works hard at everything she does. She is a really hard worker with a lot of determination. You can’t teach that, and that kid has had it ever since she was a freshman.”

Maplewood is also fortunate to have an outstanding Libero in McKenna Crawford.

Crawford averages 5.6 digs per set and has served 81 aces. Her serving in the first set of the quarterfinal match against Homer-Center turned the tied of that set and possibly the match for Maplewood.

“I think she is the glue of our team,” Bancroft said. “McKenna is sold. She is in another world. She is focused, and she has been going forward with a lot of determination since the District 10 championship game. The other players on the team feed off that.”

Maplewood has also gotten strong play from middle hitter Elizabeth Hunter (3.1 kills per set, 53 blocks), Megan Woge (96 kills, 29 aces), Savannah O’Hara (55 kills), Madison O’Hara (53 kills, 147 digs), and Maggie Means (47 aces, 183 digs).

“It goes back to when we beat Cochranton in the District 10 finals,” Bancroft said. “Everyone played an A-plus game. If everyone can show up, we are a tough team to beat.”

West Branch, which is coming off a 3-0 (25-20, 25-20, 25-20) sweep of Sacred Heart Academy, who Clarion beat in last year’s title game, is a young squad with just one of its top six hitters being a senior.

Junior middle blocker Katrina Crowder leads the Warriors with 3.6 kills per set while adding 98 blocks in 97 sets. Crowder also has 50 aces.

Marley Croyle, another junior, adds 2.6 kills and 1.2 digs per set while serving 51 aces, the second most of the team.

Matayha Kerin is the lone senior among the top hitters averaging 1.3 kills per set giving West Branch three hitters to contend with.

Junior Brooklyn Myers runs the offense and comes in with 6.5 set assists per set, while junior Libero Savannah Hoover is the top defensive player averaging 1.7 digs per set.

“We have to make sure that we do not play to not make mistakes, just play the game,” Bancroft said. “We don’t want to be tentative. We have told them to just play the game the way they have done this year and don’t have any regrets. You have to show up to play the game.”

For anyone comparative score-watching, the squads do have two common opponents this season, Homer-Center and Elk County Catholic (although the ECC match was part of a tournament for West Branch).

West Branch beat Homer-Center in the D6 title match, 3-2 (17-25, 17-25, 26-24, 25-16, 15-12) and lost in the championship game of the ECC Tournament to ECC, 2-0 (25-18, 25-18).

Maplewood topped Homer-Center in the PIAA quarterfinals, 3-0 (25-15, 25-16, 25-20) after beating ECC in the opening round of the PIAA tournament, 3-0 (25-13, 25-18, 25-20).

“We didn’t talk too much about those (comparative matchups),” Bancroft said. “I think my girls are level-headed and know anyone can beat anyone on any night. We have been in these situations before. Honestly, we have our work cut out for us. This is another match. We have come a long way and don’t want this to end. Everyone wants to win a championship.”

NOTES: Maplewood’s PIAA titles have come in 1985 (2-1 over Elk County Christian in 2A), 1992 (2-0 over Farrell (then in the WPIAL) in 2A), 1995 (2-0 over Richland in 2A), 2005 (3-1 over Titusville in an all-D10 final in 2A), and 2017 (3-0 over Marian Catholic in 1A). Bancroft coached the last four of those titles after Marti Bennett led the Tigers to the 1985 title. In an interesting side note, all five titles have been won at different locations. The 1985 title was won at IUP, the 1992 title was won at Robert Morris, the 1995 title was won at Shippensburg University, the 2005 title was won at Central York High School, and the 2017 title was won at Richland High School … Maplewood also lost title games in 1993 (2-1 to Farrell), 2000 (2-1 to Richland), and 2007 (309 to Merion Mercy) with all those being in 2A … With West Branch, who came out of the “eastern bracket” despite being in District 6, generally considered a western district, facing off against Maplewood, the PIAA 1A volleyball title will stay in Western/West-Central PA for the ninth straight year. The last time a team from the eastern side of the Commonwealth won in 1A was in 2013 when Marian Catholic knocked off Cochranton, 3-0. Since then, the WPIAL has won three titles (Greensburg Central Catholic in 2014 and 2016 and Bishop Canvein in 2015), District 9 has won a pair of titles (Clarion in 2020 and 2021), District 6 has won a pair of titles (Northern Cambria in 2018 and 2019), and District 10 has won one title (Maplewood in 2017) … All-time, District 10 is 10-17 in PIAA volleyball title games (that includes both winning and losing in the 2A final in 2005), including 0-4 in 3A, 6-11 in 2A, and 4-2 in 1A … District 6 is 14-8 all-time with seven of those titles belonging the Richland and four to Northern Cambria. Richland also is responsible for five of the losses and Northern Cambria for two of the losses … Maplewood is the first D10 team to reach a PIAA title match since Warren lost to West York, 3-0, in 2018 … The Tigers were the last 1A team from D10 to make it when they won in 2017 … District 6 returns to the title match for the first time in two years. Philipsburg-Osceola lost in 2020 to Trinity in Class 2A … West Branch is the first 1A team from D6 to make it since Northern Cambria won the second of two titles in a row in 2019 … The matchup is the first of four title games being played Saturday at Cumberland Valley. At 1 p.m. WPIAL champion Freeport takes on District 3 champion York Catholic for the 2A title, at 3:30 p.m. WPIAL champion North Catholic faces District 1 champion Pope John Paul II for the Class 3A crown, and at 6 p.m. WPIAL runner-up North Allegheny takes on District 1 champion Garnett Valley for the 4A title. North Catholic won the 2A crown last year, while North Allegheny is looking for its sixth straight Class 4A title.

MAPLEWOOD PIAA CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH HISTORY

1985 (Class 2A) – Maplewood 2, Elk County Christian 1 (9-15, 15-2, 15-10) at IUP – Head coach Marti Bennett
1992 (Class 2A) – Maplewood 2, Farrell 0 (18-16, 15-6) at Robert Morris – Head coach Shelia Bancroft
1993 (Class 2A) – Farrel 2, Maplewood 1 (15-10, 10-15, 15-13) at Shippensburg – Head coach Shelia Bancroft
1995 (Class 2A) – Maplewood 2, Richland 0 (15-9, 15-7) at Shippensburg – Head coach Shelia Bancroft
2000 (Class 2A) – Richland 2, Maplewood 1 (15-7, 2-15, 15-6) at Shippensburg – Head coach Shelia Bancroft
2005 (Class 2A) – Maplewood 3, Titusville 1 (25-17, 25-23, 22-25, 25-18) at Central York – Head coach Shelia Bancroft
2007 (Class 2A) – Merion Mercy 3, Maplewood 0 (25-17, 25-18, 25-21) at Central York – Head coach Shelia Bancroft
2017 (Class 1A) – Maplewood 3, Marion Catholic 0 (25-14, 25-23, 25-13) at Richland – Head coach Shelia Bancroft

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