WEST NORRITON — When Downingtown East faced Bishop Shanahan in the semifinals of the District 1 Class AAA volleyball tournament Thursday at Norristown High School, the match was like a NASCAR race with two drivers way out in front of the pack challenging each other all the way to the finish line.
Every time the Cougars put the pedal to the medal and took a lead, Shanahan roared back, drafted behind them, and occasionally, moved in front.
After five tense sets filled with momentum shifts, East slammed it into high gear and had control at the checkered flag. The The second-seeded Cougars earned a berth in the district title game against No. 1 after logging a 3-2 win over the Eagles.
Shanahan captured the first set in overtime at 26-24, then the Cougars came back to win the second set 25-19 and the third, 25-17. The Eagles rebounded to take the fourth set 25-20, but the Cougars ended it with a 15-12 victory in the fifth set.
The Cougars established a pattern that found its way into each match — a pattern of building a lead and then letting it slip away.
In the opening set, the score was even at the midway point and then East accelerated to leads of 20-15 and 24-21. Shanahan's Haley Kleespies stepped up and thwarted East's attempt at set point with a kill. The talented sophomore followed by serving the final four points of the game — including one point on an ace.
East roared out to a commanding 14-4 advantage to start the second set. A six-point service run by Rita Shultz closed the score to 14-11 and, a little while later, the Eagles trailed by two at 18-16. The Cougars regained control of the momentum on a four-point, one-ace service run by Caroline Layden and held on for a 25-19 win.
Momentum shifts were the story on the third set. East went ahead 5-0 on Caroline Ambrogi's serve. Shanahan took an 8-5 lead and East used another strong service effort by Layden to go ahead 10-8. The Cougars slowly built their lead and took the score to 23-15 on a four-point serving run by Ambrogi.
In the fourth set, it was more dialogue from the same script. The Cougars went up 13-9 only to relinquish the lead when Sam Nagy's serve brought the score to 17-13 in Shanahan's favor. Lauren Mueller strung together a four-point serve to give East an 18-17 lead.
The teams drew event at 18-18, 19-19 and 20-20. Shultz moved into the server's position and came through with a run that produced the set's final five points.
Why should things go any differently in the final set?
East went ahead 5-1. The score was tied at 8-8 -- and 9-9 -- 10-10. The Cougars went ahead on an ace by Alli Alicea and added another point on a Shanahan hitting error. The teams traded points. Then, the Cougars went ahead 14-11 on a kill by Mueller. Shanahan got a point on a Shultz kill and then Mueller slammed the door shut with her 26th kill of the match.
"Our coach told us before the match that we had the advantage,' said Mueller, who finished with 26 kills, 12 digs, six blocks and two aces. "She said that we're already in states and to just have fun. We did. This was the most fun match all season.
"I definitely think it was one of our better matches. Our team came together. Everyone made key points and we played good defense.'
East coach Peggy Hopton, whose team is now 18-1, said, "Our liked our grittiness tonight. Our defense was excellent. We're determined.'
The Cougars will return to the same court at Norristown to play undefeated Upper Merion for the district crown. In the consolation opener Saturday, Shanahan will face West Chester Henderson for third place.