WINDBER –Despite a gritty comeback attempt, the North Star girls’ volleyball team was unable to overcome a slow start in Tuesday night’s first-round PIAA playoff match as the Cougars dropped a 3-1 decision to Beaver at Windber High School.
The District 7 fourth-place Bobcats (17-3) came out on fire, taking the first two sets 25-17 and 25-13. However, the District 5 champion Cougars (21-2) refused to fold. North Star came through in a tight do-or-die third set with a 26-24 win and held a late lead in the fourth, but Beaver scored six of the final eight points to pull out a 25-23 triumph and capture the match.
“They were much more aggressive and quicker than us in the first two sets,” North Star coach Tony Crisafulli said. “In the third set, we settled in and played more like ourselves, but in the fourth we made some mistakes that cost us.”
Junior middle hitter Sydnee Ashbrook led the Cougar offense with 16 kills. Senior setter Cara Augustine had 19 assists and 16 digs for North Star.
Beaver advances to the quarterfinals on Saturday, as coach Tyler Szymanski’s young squad that features just two seniors on the roster looks to continue their postseason run.
“We’re a young team,” Szymanski said. “When we get our timing down and our quick sets going, we can be tough, but sometimes they can get inside their own heads when things start to go wrong. Every game is helping us gain experience.”
The Bobcats had a size advantage on the Cougars. Beaver featured four front-line players standing 5-foot-11 or better, including junior outside hitter Eden McElhaney who had a match-leading 22 kills. Senior setter Alyssa Ross had 27 digs, while junior setter Talia Gallagher dished out 30 assists.
The opening set was close early, as a tip by Sierra Walker pulled the Cougars within 9-8. Lauren Sullivan then served three of the next four points for Beaver, and after North Star closed the gap to 15-12, the Bobcats controlled the rest of the set. McElhaney had four straight service points to make it 21-12, and Payton List finished off the eight-point Bobcat win with a kill.
North Star’s lone lead of the second set came at 5-4 before the Bobcats broke it open with an 18-4 run highlighted by three List kills and six Sullivan service points en route to the 12-point victory.
The Cougars, who had only lost eight sets all year coming into the game, were now facing a must-win situation and responded with a strong third-set start led by Ashbrook and Emily Bittner. Bittner’s four service points and five Ashbrook kills staked North Star to an 8-5 lead. The Cougars maintained that edge until a Gallagher tip put Beaver up 18-17, and List’s kill subsequently stretched the Bobcat edge to 20-18. However, North Star regained a 22-21 lead on Ashbrook’s kill. An errant Cougar serve on set point allowed Beaver to tie it at 24, but the Cougars finished off the two-point win by capitalizing on a Bobcat double hit and Augustine’s clinching service point.
What proved to be the final set was a dogfight. After a quick 3-0 Beaver lead, the remainder of the set featured six ties and four lead changes. The Bobcats had their biggest edge at 13-9 on McElhaney’s kill, but the Cougars later rallied with a 4-0 run with three Walker service points to go up 21-19.
With the score tied 23-23, a McElheney kill and a final service point by Brianna Sevcik finished off the two-point Bobcat win and sealed the match. Crisafulli praised the effort of his seniors.
“They have left some big shoes to fill, and I wish them all the best,” Crisafulli said.