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It’s been a long road rebuilding the Cedar Crest girls volleyball program.

But in the midst of continued struggles, improvement was sought, with its overall record increasing the last four seasons.

And finally, all the blood, sweat and tears have paid off in what’s been a year of firsts for Cedar Crest.

Along with having a player named as a Lancaster-Lebanon League First Team All-Star for the first time in a while, and earning a win late in the year over a section rival for what appears to be the first time ever – the Falcons have qualified for the District 3 Class 4A tournament, its first bid since 2004.

Cedar Crest clinched a district playoff berth Oct. 11 after prevailing in a tough battle with Penn Manor.

“As a coach it’s a real big positive. If anything in years past, I think we had a team with a little more potential than what the wins and loses showed. This year, this group won every game they should have, and went on from there,” said Cedar Crest coach Chad Nolen, who’s in his fourth season. “You can definitely see the positive mentality starting to grow, and the kids are starting to buy into it and forget about the past.”

Nolen says an increased volleyball IQ gave the team potential to finally get over the hump.

“This group has understood the game better than any other class we’ve had go through. Every year the next class coming in seems to understand the game a lot better,” he said.

Leadership from upperclassmen has been another foundation, especially from Amy Johns and team captain Grace Miller.

Miller, while earning aforementioned postseason honors, led the team with the highest serve receive percentage and best passing percentage, and led Section 1 in total kills in the regular season.

Miller and John’s sole focus was on the team’s mentality, though.

“Being captain, I had to really focus on myself, leading by example. I also wanted to encourage everyone else, keeping the goal of making districts throughout the year,” Miller said.

That approach was tested after a 3-3 start, which included back-to-back losses to Warwick and Penn Manor.

And life in Section 1 is already all-out survival, having five of the top 13 teams coming from the section, including two ranked in top 10 in the state at one point this season.

But after taking some time building chemistry, the season finally saw its upward point, including earning what appeared to be the program’s first win against Hempfield, along with the postseason clincher.

“It was hard work,” Johns said.

Miller said, "We started getting used to playing with each other and finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. We made a lot of major breakthroughs from there and started getting more confident."

Johns and Miller credit their team's success with Nolen’s coaching style.

“He was straightforward. He told us what we were doing wrong right away and what we were doing right,” Johns said. “We all look up to him.”

“He’s a really knowledgeable volleyball player,” Miller said. “That helps a lot.”

Now having reached the playoff stage, the journey only gets tougher, as the Falcons face an Exeter Township at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Garden Spot. Exeter has continually dominated Berks County.

“Exeter’s program is run by two friends of mine. Their coaches have been there a long time and have built it that way,” Nolen said. “The kids buy into the system and they keep getting top-notch athletes within the school.”

However, when teams at any level accomplish a goal of simply making the playoffs when it hasn’t been done in a good while, it sometimes leads to a state of contempt.

Nolen sees his team getting past that point though.

“Against Hempfield we definitely seemed that way a little bit, having nothing to lose after we had clinched against Penn Manor,” Nolen said. “We came out really flat and I was disappointed I needed to point it out to them. I think the girls are starting to get and see it, and I expect them to give a 110-percent effort now, realizing that just being there isn’t the accomplishment.”

And besides maintaining that focus, Miller and Johns also say fundamentals are also vital for a memorable Saturday.

“Focusing on positioning and consistency will be really important for us. Receiving the ball is also key,” Johns said.

But no matter the outcome, the Falcons have their school behind them.

“I know the day after we officially made playoffs, I think it was going around on Twitter," Johns said. "I also had people say, ‘Congrats’ in the hallways. On the announcements, I think people were also noticing us getting some wins and making playoffs, so that’s cool."

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