Indiana girls put finishing touch on undefeated regular season
SPRING CHURCH — The players and coaches on the Indiana girls’ volleyball team deservedly sported ear-to-ear grins following Tuesday’s dominant win over Apollo.
After months of executing on the courts, the Indians had finally reached their lofty goal of finishing the regular season unbeaten, and they looked like a team peaking just in time for the postseason in the process.
Setter Brianna Dillon found a rhythm early with her talented team of hitters, and outside hitter Natalie Cignetti overpowered with jump serves and an array of sizzling kills from the perimeter to spearhead a sweep in a WPIAL Section 3-AA match. The Indians won by scores of 25-9, 25-21, 25-10.
Indiana (14-0, 10-0 section) clinched its seventh straight section title and its second in a row in Section 3-AA with a win over Derry on Thursday.
The Indians won the Section 6-AA title in 2007 to begin their string of section titles before capturing four straight 4-AA titles from 2008 to 2011.
Indiana, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s top-ranked Class AA team, will find out who it plays in the playoffs when the WPIAL holds its pairings meeting Monday.
Apollo-Ridge concluded its season with a record of 6-10.
“It feels great,” Dillon, a sophomore who finished with a match-high 39 assists, said. “It feels amazing just being able to be a part of an older, varsity team, and being able to tell people that we completed a perfect season, it just feels so good.”
Cignetti, a senior who guided the Indians to the semifinal round of the WPIAL playoffs last year, admitted that expectations within the team put added pressure on her at the onset of the season.
“After last season, we really wanted to set high standards for our team this year. We had a lot of goals that we set out to reach,” Cignetti, who posted match-highs in kills (17) and aces (8), said. “We had our moments where we had to shake off the rust this year, but we learned a ton along the way, and all of that was to help us reach our ultimate goal of qualifying for the state playoffs.”
The Vikings struggled with both serving and serve receiving in Game 1, and the Indians capitalized, racing to leads of 11-4 and 20-6.
Middle hitter Zoe Zahorchak sealed a 25-9 win in Game 1 for the Indians by spiking a kill into Apollo-Ridge’s back row on game-point.
Kira Marks reeled off five straight service points late in Game 2, giving the Vikings an 18-16 lead, just their second of the match, and prompting a timeout from 11th-year Indiana coach Malinda Oesterling.
The Indians responded to Oesterling’s timeout and won the next six points, four of which came off powerful Cignetti aces, to take a 22-18 lead.
“That hostile environment, I’ve got to hand it to the fans back there — that threw us off,” Oesterling said. “We had trouble talking to each other on the court and that obviously led to some errors, and it was because of the noise. They really helped their team control that game.”
Apollo-Ridge failed to recover following Cignetti’s run, and committed service errors on two of the last three points of Game 2, including one on game-point, to give Indiana a 25-21 win.
“That was definitely good strategy on her part,” Apollo-Ridge coach Linda Guercio said of Oesterling’s timeout at 18-16. “They calmed down and got the ball in the hands of their best server (Cignetti), and that really set us back.
“She just has a good, strong serve. She puts that top-spin on it and she really puts it wherever she wants to put it. I’d definitely say she’s a player to watch out for.”
Claire Broman dropped an ace in Indiana’s back row midway through Game 3 to cut the Vikings’ deficit to three points, 12-9.
But that’s when Cignetti truly found her groove, and with the help of Dillon’s pinpoint passing and hard-to-handle serves, the Indians took over for good.
Cignetti recorded kills on six of the next 11 points to propel the Indians on an 11-0 run that gave them a 23-9 lead.
Three points later, middle hitter Helena Dadson smacked a perfectly placed ace in the Vikings’ back row to cement the sweep.
“Bri’s just done an incredible job all year,” Cignetti said of Dillon. “We couldn’t ask for a better setter. She really helps the whole team, and you could see there in that last game, she really got us in a rhythm. Volleyball really revolves around the setter, and she did a great job this year just keeping us together and helping us to build that confidence as a team.”
Dillon amassed 10 service points on the Indians’ 11-0 run in Game 3, but deflected the credit right back to Cignetti and the Indians’ six other seniors — Jill Bender, Dadson, Aaryn Gray, Alexandra Kerr, Danielle Kurto and Dana Piper.
“This is my first year starting, but I got such a huge boost in confidence from all the seniors. They’ve just been great,” Dillon said. “They’ve helped me so much and done so much for my confidence. A lot of times they make my job look easy. They’re just great.”
Oesterling, who guided Indiana to 45 consecutive section wins between September 2007 and October 2011, said that achieving superiority in the section year after year comes second to evolving and improving match to match.
“We just want to play and we want to improve, and that’s the main goal, just getting better,” Oesterling said. “Every time we come out here we want to play better, and if we don’t, then we try to figure out why.”
Gray added eight kills, Kurto had six, and Dadson and Bender each had five.
Courtney Casella led Apollo-Ridge with nine kills. Broman had seven kills, and Marks tacked on 12 service points.