CLEARFIELD - Heading into Tuesday night's PIAA volleyball semifinal, Clarion head coach Shari Campbell had an opportunity to take the Bobcats back to the state championship game for the first time since 2012. That year, Campbell and the Bobcats, who reached the title game in three straight years, captured the state crown after losing the previous two.
Campbell's squad was obviously eager to get back into the spotlight, but standing in their way was a team in Northern Cambria, which has had the spotlight for the last year after winning the Class 1A state title just a season ago.
In one of the toughest tests each team has had all season, Northern Cambria outlasted the Bobcats in four hard-fought sets, 31-29, 21-25, 25-18, 27-25, to punch the Colts' ticket into the PIAA Class 1A final, where they will take on Nativity on Saturday.
"We had opportunities," Campbell said. "We had our chances and it hurts real bad, but you want to know you left it all out there. We battled with them and had our opportunities. Northern Cambria is a great team."
Clarion had its opportunities, indeed.
However, in the early stages of the first set, it seemed as if the floor was tilted in Northern Cambria's direction. The Colts capitalized on some early errors out of Clarion's serving corps and were able to jump out to a 14-5 lead. Then, Clarion started to wake up. Two aces from captain Brenna Campbell and four straight kills from Aryana Girvan sparked a 10-2 run, bringing the Bobcats within one point.
Northern Cambria was able to keep the margin at a manageable distance until a series of events seemed to shift the momentum into Clarion's favor. With the score at 23-18, Northern Cambria's Maggie Hogan spiked two would-be kills out of bounds that would give Girvan the serve. Girvan landed an ace that made the score 23-20 and started to take some power off her serve. Girvan's soft serve, if you will, caused two more misplays out of Hogan and subsequently brought the game to a 23-23 tie. The two teams traded points deep into extra time but, great blocking on the Colts' front line denied Clarion an opportunity to take the set as two kill attempts by Clarion were blocked giving Northern Cambria a 31-29 set victory.
Both teams traded blows throughout the next set, and really the rest of the night. With the score at 16-14 in Northern Cambria's favor, Payton Simko notched a block that seemed to give Clarion the edge. Simko's block, along with solid play from Clarion's front line, kept the Colts at a three-point deficit for a chunk of time. The Colts' back-breaker in the set came when a Cambria player seemed to dig a rifled spike off the hand of Korrin Burns, but when the ball shot right back into Burns' direction, she rifled it right back making sure no Colts player could touch it. The play gave Clarion a 23-20 lead and the Bobcats went on to take the set 25-21.
Despite jumping out to an early lead in the third set, Clarion looked to be outmatched by Hogan, one of the top players in the state. Hogan landed seven kills in the set that ended with a 12-5 run by the Colts, putting the pressure on Clarion.
The Bobcats would not, and did not give up any ground in the fourth set. Seven lead changes in the early stages set up a thrilling ending. After Burns accounted for two straight points with a kill and an ace to give Clarion a 15-11 lead, errors from the Bobcats started to give the game away. Clarion surrendered multiple errors off the serve that almost singlehandedly brought Northern Cambria with in a point at 20-19. Burns killed a ball that made the score 21-19 and it looked like she would tab another to extend the lead. However, Rayna Buza made a spectacular dig that eventually set up a kill by Hogan. Northern Cambria's front line stepped up down the stretch and prevented key points by Clarion. The Bobcats committed errors on serves with the game tied twice down the stretch and Hogan made them pay with two more kills in the final six plays, including the game-clinching kill.
"There were just a lot of unforced errors and we scored a lot of points for them," coach Campbell said of Clarion's play down the stretch. "You can't do that at this point. We were young. I know we had some great seniors but, we were young, too."