SLIPPERY ROCK — In arguably its best defensive performance of the year, Indiana scrapped valiantly but ultimately got outgunned in an unforgettable, back-and-forth clash with District 10 champ Conneaut on Saturday.
The Indians erased an early one-game deficit and then pushed the Eagles to the brink of defeat in Game 4, only to succumb to intense pressure late in the set and fall in a quarterfinal-round match of the PIAA Class AA girls’ volleyball playoffs at Slippery Rock High School. Conneaut won by scores of 25-18, 23-25, 25-19, 26-24.
Indiana, the WPIAL runner-up and Section 3-AA champ, concluded its season with a mark of 18-2.
The Eagles (18-1) advanced to the state semifinals to take on returning state champ Fort LeBoeuf. Conneaut snapped Fort LeBoeuf’s 37-match winning streak and upset the Bison in the District 10 title match last Saturday.
“What can I say about that team? Holy cow!” 11th-year Indiana coach Malinda Oesterling said of Conneaut. “The firepower on both sides of the net was just incredible. I mean, you’d blast a ball and it would get dug up, you’d blast a ball and it would get dug up. That was one of the hardest-hitting matches we’ve ever been in, and it was awesome on both sides.”
Conneaut set the tone in the first match and erased an early two-point deficit in Game 1 when Kim Litwin reeled off seven straight service points to give the Eagles an 11-6 lead.
Kristen Baker, one of the Eagles’ two dynamic and explosive outside hitters, slammed a kill later in the game to slow down an Indiana run and push Conneaut’s lead to 20-17.
The Eagles then won four of the next five points to force game point at 24-18.
Conneaut’s other explosive outside hitter, Challen Litwiler, put the finishing touches on Game 1 by smacking a kill on the next point to sew up a 25-18 win.
“When we get down a game I think it motivates us even more to want to push and play harder,” Indiana senior Alexandra Kerr said. “We knew what was coming and we practiced what they were going to hit, and I do think we played one of the best defensive games ever. Eventually we got in their heads, and that’s what we needed to do.”
The Eagles struggled to receive service from Kerr in Game 2, and the libero went on a five-point run to help Indiana jump out to a 10-2 lead.
Indiana blockers Helena Dadson and Zoe Zahorchak slowed down Litwiler and Baker, but Conneaut used nifty service of its own to gradually chip away at the deficit. Ultimately, Litwiler used a tricky jump serve to notch an ace and tie the game, 18-18.
But thanks to a kill apiece from seniors Natalie Cignetti, Jill Bender and Aaryn Gray, Indiana won six of the next 11 points to bring up game point at 24-23.
Conneaut committed its third hitting error of the game on the next point to cement a 25-23 win for the Indians.
“Their outside hitters came alive a little more and did a better job of adjusting to our defense,” Conneaut coach Tim Schleicher said. “They also served a lot tougher in that game and it forced us out of system a little more. They didn’t have to work as hard on first contact, and that really got them going in their system.”
The Eagles regained their footing in Game 3 and built leads of 12-7 and 18-13. A pair of kills and an ace from Litwiler and a kill each from Martin and Angie Vickers gave Conneaut a 23-19 lead.
Two points later, a Conneaut player dropped an ace in the middle of the Indians’ defense to end the game at 25-19, giving the Eagles a 2-1 lead.
“I think we’re both equal teams,” Kerr said. “It was just hard because everyone had their good hits and good defensive plays; it just came down to who was going to push more and want it more.”
Indiana kept its composure and utilized two kills from Cignetti and a kill each from Bender, Gray and sophomore Brianna Dillon to establish a 14-8 lead in Game 4.
But the Eagles fought back and tied the game 17-17 following two kills from Litwiler, a kill from Martin and two straight aces from Aliya Hutman.
The teams forged five ties in the next 13 points before Gray swatted a kill that fell behind the Eagles’ defense to give Indiana 24-23 lead, inducing a timeout from Schleicher.
Schleicher devised a play to give his best hitter, Litwiler, an opportunity to tie the game with a kill on the next point. Litwiler responded and soared above the net to rip a kill off an Indiana defender and out of bounds, tying the game 24-24.
An Indiana hitting error on the next point forced game point at 25-24 and persuaded Oesterling to call a timeout.
With the entire crowd chanting and on its feet, Litwiler uncorked a perfect jump serve that Indiana couldn’t handle and let drop for an ace to wrap up a 26-24 win for Conneaut.
“That was the most pressure I think we’ve ever felt. We wanted it so bad,” Kerr said. “We knew we can do it. We’ve beaten them before, but that fact that we didn’t today hurts.”
“There was so much pressure on every move we made,” Cignetti said. “We knew our season depended on it. It was over today if we lost. Those last few points, I’ve never felt anything like it, but I still think we played really strong.”
A fierce competitor, Oestlerling, who guided the Indians to the state quarterfinals in 2010, the year they were WPIAL runner-up, commended her team on an extraordinary effort.
“It was a hard-fought battle and I’m so proud of them,” she said. “No one likes to lose, but if you leave it all out there and you play your best, and you’re playing a team that’s that good, you’ve got to be pleased with what you’ve done. We can walk away and say, ‘You know what? We did an awesome job.’ And I’m perfectly OK with that.”