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STATE COLLEGE - Just a point away from the pinnacle, Matt Wilson tried to calm his Northeastern players.

The Bobcats coach knew they were tense after Ambridge called a timeout. Their nerves showed only a handful of times in a steamroller of a season. Saturday in the PIAA Class AA boys' volleyball title match, their seven-point lead disappeared. They had room for error, but not much.

Then came the relief: a simple play they executed in warmups and so many times before, and it came Reese Devilbiss' way. A bump between from Stephen Braswell to his brother Luke turned into an arching setup for the freshman. Devilbiss took a step and slammed down the final point of Northeastern's state championship season.

A celebration this team talked about last year at Penn State's Multi-Sport Indoor Facility became a reality. The Bobcats, ranked No. 1 in Pennsylvania by the state's coaches, beat the No. 2 team, 25-15, 23-25, 25-22, 25-22.

At this time last season, Wilson's inexperienced team bowed out in quarterfinal pool play at Penn State. That hardly came close to happening in this state tournament run. Through four matches, they dropped just two games - once Saturday in the final and earlier in the first round against Bethlehem Catholic, where senior Stephen Braswell saw a spike in the play of his freshman teammate.

"Coach Wilson always says when one of us makes a good play, 'that's next-level ball.' For him, his next level was the entire match," Stephen Braswell said.

If the Bobcats (21-1) were tense in the final moments of their state-title quest, Devilbiss' nerves formed in April. Wilson's expectations were high for this team and his newest player, who began the journey with them last July during a club tournament in Dallas. They faced teams from California and ones that mimicked AAU teams, but Northeastern's group was its high school team.

The Bobcat bunch finished in the top third of the 64-team event, which became a rite of passage to become the best in Pennsylvania.

Before that run, Wilson saw Devilbiss dominate his age group and gave him a chance against older competition. The freshman's teammates expected his arrival. By this spring, Devilbiss wondered: could he help them achieve their goal?

"We were all tense at the beginning of the year," he said. "During the end, Wilson told us to stay more relaxed because we knew what we could do."

They showed it once more Saturday, and so did he.

Devilbiss swatted 20 kills at an Ambridge team (17-4-1) he never previously faced. The state finalists saw each other throughout April, including the Bobcats' own invitational and Central York's Koller Classic .

"Our whole entire April we were not home for one weekend," Ambridge senior libero Cody Brooks said. "They were at every single tournament except for one weekend, so it was wild. But it kind of saved the suspense for today."

That suspense turned into a mismatch exploited by the 6-foot-2 Devilbiss. Ambridge had 6-5 junior Lee Smith on the outside and a 6-6 senior, Trent Munk, also at the net. To the right, the height wasn't nearly as imposing.

"When we had Reese up front, he could go over up top, down and to the middle of the court without any problems whatsoever," Stephen Braswell said. "When you have a freshman playing that good, it makes everyone else want to play great."

 

Devilbiss stood back to serve during an opening run that saw Northeastern jump to an 8-1 Game 1 lead. The Bobcats coasted through their first win before stumbling in Game 2. They nearly took that one and lost by just two. The mistakes that came with an early deficit didn't follow in Games 3 and 4. Both times Northeastern established an early lead to push it home, where the tradition of a fire truck and celebration waited in Manchester.

Wilson and his players last boarded that truck upon their return from the 2010 state championship.

"It is a nice feeling," the coach said of what awaited them back home, "a great feeling."

Wilson could finally breathe a sigh of relief after fulfilling the expectations he reminded his players about throughout this season. That's what Wilson said made them "special."

They rarely lost on the court. The Bobcats' lone five-game defeat of the season came against a Pennsbury squad that followed them Saturday in the Class AAA final. One of the few moments of doubt came with the Pennsbury loss, senior Malik Jefferson said. Three players moved positions after that defeat, which sent sophomore Devin Soop away from libero. Junior Matt Hollinger took Soop's old role and 6-1 sophomore Phil White moved up because of his length and wingspan.

Only a few more times did nervous moments arrive. They were usually championship matches like Saturday, when Wilson sensed a gasp in his players with one point to go. He said he felt it in Northeastern crowd, which more than doubled Ambridge's spectators.

So he told his players during the final timeout with the score 24-20: "If it doesn't go our way this time, relax. It's a side-out mentality right now. That's what we excel at."

There was no need for a run, which Ambridge's Brooks asked for and received before the Bridgers' rally. A defensive point wound up being the winner after Hollinger's winning serve attempt did not yield the championship. Instead, it was just a simple bump, set and spike to achieve a bigger task.

"To come back," Wilson said, "and truly do exactly what you left here one year ago saying you're going to do, that's hard to do."

@mgoul; 771-2045

 

PIAA Championships
Class AA title match
at Penn State University
NORTHEASTERN 3, AMBRIDGE 1
(25-15, 23-25, 25-22, 25-22)
Northeastern stats: Luke Braswell (1 kill, 10 digs, 30 assists, 1 block); Stephen Braswell (17 kills, 8 digs, 2 assists, 1 block, 1 ace); Matt Hollinger (14 digs, 2 assists); Reese Devilbiss (20 kills, 10 digs, 5 blocks, 2 aces); Devin Soop (1 kill, 6 digs); Malik Jefferson (7 kills, 1 dig); Casey Winand (1 kill, 3 digs, 5 blocks); Phillip White (9 kills, 2 digs, 1 block, 2 aces); Matt Schaeffer (1 dig); Chris Lee (1 dig)

 

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