It’s been 13 years since the Maplewood Tigers girls volleyball team has taken the floor for a PIAA Class 2A state playoff game. Even though it wasn’t due to a lack of success, that stretch will come to an end today when Maplewood hosts the undefeated District 6 Champion Philipsburg-Osceola Mounties at 1 p.m.
After moving down from Class 2A to 1A after the 2007 state championship run, Maplewood spent the following 11 seasons in 1A, which culminated with another state title in 2017. Since bumping back up to 2A before the 2018 campaign, the Tigers struggled to get past Corry into the PIAA Tournament. After sweeping Sharpsville to begin the 2020 playoff run, Maplewood got past its nemesis in straight sets with a 25-21, 25-15, 25-21 victory over the Beavers on Nov. 5.
Boasting another District 10 title following a co-Region 4 regular-season title, the 20-2 Maplewood Tigers are ready to take it to the next level when the PIAA Quarterfinals come to Guys Mills this afternoon.
“In all my years of coaching I don’t think it has ever happened,” Maplewood coach Sheila Bancroft said of playing a PIAA Tournament game on her team’s home floor. “It’s a little bit to our advantage because not having to travel does help. (In the end) it’s a fine volleyball gym, so there is no unfair advantage for either team.”
The Lady Mounties also had a tough road in their district tournament, as they swept away two-time defending PIAA Class 3A Champion Northern Cambria in the semifinals before knocking off 2018 PIAA Class 2A Champion and 2019 D-6 Champion Bald Eagle in Tuesday’s district final.
Coming into tonight’s contest, Philipsburg-Osceola will have fresher legs regarding postseason competition. Compared to the Mounties’ four-day break since their district final, Maplewood hasn’t taken the playoff floor in nine days.
In the meantime, Maplewood did scrimmage Saegertown on Tuesday, according to Bancroft, but when news broke about Conneaut Area’s season coming to an abrupt end because of COVID-19 striking their team, the Tigers shifted gears and stayed in their home gym.
“We figured because Saegertown was close and in the same district that it would be okay, but as soon as we heard about CASH we decided to just stay home,” Bancroft said. “(Since then), we’ve just been fine tuning, keeping our hands on the ball and working on the fundamentals.”
It has been more than luck that has allowed Maplewood to continue its season, as the Tigers have been intentional about avoiding an outbreak on the team. As far as avoiding a forfeit due to the virus, Bancroft said that her team has just been “doing what they’re asked to do.”
“I told the girls to follow the rules and that they have the rest of their lives for gatherings and to put the fun stuff on hold,” Bancroft said. “We’re very cautious and we wear our masks when we need to. We’ve been pretty lucky so far.”
Like the Tigers, the Mounties have plenty of PIAA Tournament experience, although they do not have a state title to show for it. Since 1985, Philipsburg-Osceola has made the state dance nine times, including 2020, but the program has yet to make it past the quarterfinal round. In their last state contest, Indiana handed Philipsburg-Osceola a three-set defeat in the 2013 first round, while the last taste of victory came in the 2009 first round against Blackhawk.
Even though the Mounties haven’t had as much success at the state level, their recent playoff upset victories have not gone unnoticed by Bancroft and the Tigers.
“They are riding a high and have been working toward this,” Bancroft said of the Mounties. “They’ve got a nice group of juniors playing together a few years and a powerful freshman. They’re an up and coming program, and it’s been a while since they made the state playoffs. They’re a hot team.”
Reese Hazelton, a 6-foot freshman and outside hitter, powered Philipsburg-Osceola in the 25-23, 25-18, 32-30, 25-16 win over the Eagles in this year’s District 6 final with her 30 kills. Hazelton showed power and finesse from the front and back rows during the title match, and has totaled 388 kills, along with 150 digs, during her team’s 18-0 season to this point.
Hazelton is also a member of the USA Volleyball National training team, and will be a focal point for the Maplewood defense.
“You have to play solid front line and back line defense,” Bancroft said when asked about slowing down Hazelton. “You gotta get some digs and get your hands on ball to slow her down. It’s like playing (CASH’s) Cassidy Snider. We know she is going to get her kills, but we have to slow the ball down and not give her any easy balls. Also, if we take care of the rest of the girls on the floor, one player will not beat you. It takes more than one person to win a match.”
The winner of tonight’s quarterfinal will advance to the state semifinals on Tuesday, where they will be matched up against either District 9 Champion Redbank Valley or District 7 Champion North Catholic. Bancroft believes today’s game will come down to “ball control.”
“If our serve-receive is there, we have the hitters as well to match up against them,” Bancroft said. “We’re a pretty good serving team, and we’re hit or miss on passing. We just have to control the ball well and get a few digs on defense.”