By DENNY DYROFF

For the 21st Century Media

PHILADELPHIA -- When Downingtown East's volleyball team arrived at The School of the Future in Philadelphia Tuesday evening for its PIAA Class AAA volleyball tournament opening round match against Cardinal O'Hara, it had to walk past polling stations for Pennsylvania's 2013 general election that were being hosted by the new school in West Philadelphia.

While those involved with the city's political scene had to wait until later in the evening to find out if their favorites were victorious, those involved in the volleyball match -- players, family and fans -- were treated to early results.

No political pundits or straw polls were needed prior to the match to determine which team was the favorite. Downingtown East, which finished second in the District 1 Class AAA tournament on Saturday and is currently 10th in the state in the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association's latest rankings, was the overwhelming favorite.

The Cougars lived up to expectations when they rolled to a 3-0 sweep of the District 12 Class AAA champions.

Downingtown East began with a 25-13 win in the opening set. The Cougars encountered a little more resistance from the Lions in the second set but still stayed in control on their way to a 25-21 win. Then, they wrapped it up with a 25-19 victory in the third set.


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"I had scouting reports on O'Hara, but I had never seen them play,' said Downingtown East coach Peggy Hopton, whose team is now 19-2. "We just have to always stay focused on what we need to do -- serve, pass and play good defense.'

There was a similarity between all three sets in Tuesday's match -- a pattern where East would allow the Lions to hang around for the first half of the set and then systematically break them down in the latter stages.

In the first set, O'Hara trailed by just a point midway through. Then, a pair of kills by East's hard-hitting Lauren Mueller pushed the score to 17-12. Caroline Layden took over the serve and delivered a seven-point, two-ace service run that carried the Cougars to set point.

In the middle set, O'Hara led by a point midway through at 12-11. Then, Caroline Ambrogi came through with points on a kill and a dink and Alli Alicea produced an ace to put the Cougars ahead by a pair at 14-12.

Before long, East had engineered leads of four (17-13), five (20-15) and seven (24-17). O'Hara dug in and scored four unanswered points to cut East's lead to 24-21. But, the Lions' hope for an amazing comeback was snuffed when Cassidy Kenny and Mueller combined for a block to end the set.

The third set was like a movie sequel that closely -- really closely -- followed a similar set to the first two installments in the series. The midway point arrived and O'Hara led by a point at 12-10.

The Cougars regained possession on a kill by Layden and drew even when Layden logged another kill. That was the first point of a seven-point, two-ace service run by senior outside hitter Caroline Ambrogi that pushed the score to 18-12. The teams traded points down the stretch with East still ahead by six points at the end.

"Slow starts -- it seems like we do that a lot,' said East's standout setter Rachael Graham. "When it gets into the higher numbers on the scoreboard, we realize that we have to start playing.'

Graham was half-joking and half-serious. It just seemed that starter's gun never went off for the Cougars until there was a "12' on at least one side of the scoreboard.

One of the keys to the matches was Graham's effective setting which was made even more effective by the Lions' lack of strong blocking in the middle.

"I could mix it up a lot more today,' said Graham. "When teams have big middles, I have to set it antenna-to-antenna. Today, there weren't any big blockers to deal with. So, I spread it around to keep them guessing.'

Cardinal O'Hara coach Bill Collins said, "Physically, we're not going to intimidate anybody. Our strong points are serving well and having ball control. We try to make the other team make mistakes. But, East doesn't make mistakes. They had very few unforced errors.

"We lost to them in this round of states last year. They have everybody back from that team so we knew what to expect. They executed really well. And, they're very well-coached. Peggy was my coach at Drexel University and it seems the teacher still has a couple tricks up her sleeve to use on the student.'

Hopton said, "As long as we pass and serve well, we're a tough team to beat. And, we play good defense. Our players were all very composed tonight.'

Downingtown East earned a berth in the state quarterfinals against third-ranked Cumberland Valley on Saturday at a site-to-be-determined. On Tuesday, the District 3 champion Eagles improved to 20-1 when they defeated Bishop Shanahan 3-1 (19-25, 25-17, 25-21, 25-18). Cardinal O'Hara, meanwhile, concluded its season with a 15-7 record.