By DENNY DYROFF
For the 21st Century Media
UWCHLAN -- Downingtown East hosted Avon Grove in a District 1 Class AAA volleyball tournament quarterfinal match Tuesday evening and, when the match began, the Cougars were on fire. The visitors, meanwhile, played as if they were stuck in mire.
East sprinted to a decisive win in the first set and then the Red Devils got their game going. Avon Grove captured the next two sets and had the serve for match point twice in the fourth set.
With their backs to the wall, the Cougars fought back to escape with an overtime win in the fourth set and then rolled to a comfortable win in the final set. With the 3-2 win, East earned a berth in the district semifinals against Bishop Shanahan Thursday. The Cougars also secured one of District 1's fourth berths for next week's state tournament.
The host squad seemed unable to do anything wrong in the first set and posted a 25-13 win. The Red Devils came alive in the next set and cruised to a 25-17 victory. In the third set, the visitors had to withstand a serious challenge down the stretch to escape with a nail-biting 25-23 win.
The Cougars outlasted their guests 29-27 in the crucial fourth set and then earned a trip to the district's Final Four with a 15-8 win in the fifth set. It was East's second win over Avon Grove this season. When the teams met at the start of the season, East emerged with a 3-2 victory in a match that went five extra points in the fifth game of the best-of-five competition.
"This was another classic,' said East coach Peggy Hopton, whose team is now 17-1. "That first set was one of the best sets we've played all year.'
The Cougars played virtually error-free in the opener while AG's girls repeatedly hurt themselves with mental mistakes and service errors. In the following set, the Red Devils turned it around and began demonstrating the high caliber ball they're capable of playing.
"They stopped making errors and giving us free points,' said Hopton.
Avon Grove coach Marouane Jafir said, "They came out and played really tough at the beginning and we started the game late. I used a different lineup after the first set and that helped.'
The match featured a lot of impressive hitting at the net. In the first set, many of the big blows were delivered by East's Caroline Ambrogi, Lauren Mueller, Cassidy Kenny, Alli Alicea and Caroline Layden.
In the next two sets, Avon Grove grabbed the momentum with strong net play from Izzy Neils, Julia Crabtree, Heather Brown, Allison Raff and Jane McCann.
"In the first set, we just came out so strong,' said Kenny, a senior middle blocker. "And, they weren't playing their best. We came in with a lot of confidence and we built a lot of momentum.
"After the first set, I didn't think they'd be able to come back but they're a good team. They're definitely better than they were the first time we played them. They were very scrappy tonight.'
Actually, both teams were really scrappy. Avon Grove had a 23-16 lead in the third set and East fought back to close to within one point at 24-23. Then, a kill by AG's Jane McCann closed the door.
The Cougars assumed control early in the fourth set and had leads of 7-2, 10-5, 13-8 and 16-9Avon Grove rebounded and cut East's lead to two at 20-18. The Cougars pushed it back to 24-21 and then Neils served four consecutive points to give her team a 25-24 advantage.
The Red Devils served for match point twice -- at 25-24 and 27-26 -- but couldn't come through with the clincher. The Cougars surged back and won the set 29-27 on a block by Layden.
"That fourth set took a lot out of us -- physically and emotionally,' said Neils.
Avon Grove couldn't get its game going in the finals set and East began firing on all cylinders again.
"In the fifth set, we just didn't want to lose,' said Kenny.'It was the last home game for the seniors. So, losing wasn't an option.'
Jafir, whose team ended its season with a 14-5 record, said, "I'm very proud of my team and how they played. The best player on my team tonight was Izzy Neils. In the fourth set, she got us back in the game with her serves. She did an awesome job.'
Hopton said, "I was a little concerned after we lost the second and third sets. But, I knew if we played the way we can, we'd be fine. Our girls had their backs to the wall and they were up for the challenge.'