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Thursday night served as a dress rehearsal in two ways for the Northeastern boys' volleyball team and its seniors.

The graduating class held its awards dinner while the volleyball team conducted practice. Bobcats coach Matt Wilson took it as preparation "just in case" he is without six seniors for Saturday's state quarterfinal match.

Graduation is at 1 p.m. Northeastern faces North Pocono at 6 p.m. for its Class AA tournament meeting at Easton Area Middle School. The schedule leaves little wiggle room for the 120-mile trip in between.

"As a coach you always worry when you're not in your normal routine," Wilson said. "We're definitely going to be out of our routine, which is unsettling."

Northeastern isn't alone on a challenging Saturday.

While the defending Class AA state champions must drive in excess of two hours northeast, last year's Class AAA champs will take a slightly longer trip northwest to Altoona Area High School. This is a sharp contrast from last year, when Central stayed within 60 miles of home for its first three tournament matchups.

"I don't understand why we're traveling to Altoona when we're a one seed and they're not," coach Brad Livingston said Friday as his team prepared to face District 7 runner-up Seneca Valley. "In basketball it seems lower seeds have to travel all over the place."

The PIAA's Greg Biller, who oversees volleyball championships, said its policy is to reward district volleyball champions with short travel only for the first round. Afterward, Biller said, equal distance is sought for both teams.

The quandary for Livingston's Panthers is where they are positioned in the bracket. Central beat Hempfield and Penn Manor on its way to a district championship last week, yet those schools will play their state quarterfinals at Mechanicsburg against eastern-side schools Parkland and Emmaus. If the Panthers win Saturday, they will likely make another trip west for the semifinals against Fox Chapel or Bethel Park, both WPIAL teams like Seneca Valley.

State brackets are approved for two-year stretches, and Livingston said coaches around the state asked the PIAA to separate District 3 and 7 champions so they would not meet until a potential state final. That happened in both of last year's title games, but the AAA bracket for this year and next year has them positioned for potential semifinal meetings.

With a 2 1/2-hour drive ahead of them Saturday, Livingston said the Panthers plan for a few stops to stretch between York and Altoona. At this time last year, his team only had to drive to Exeter near Reading — but it had to deal with graduation like the Bobcats do this year.

Northeastern's previous graduation crunch was 2007, when the PIAA still used a weekend of pool play to crown its state volleyball champions. Senior Philip White's older brother, Richie, endured that conflict and sent him text messages of advice before the quarterfinal and graduation.

"He was telling me it was a good thing we're doing it now," Philip White said. "You don't want to miss graduation, but he told me to stay focused with volleyball and not get sidetracked with graduation."

Northeastern athletic director Bryan Stephens said volleyball players will be among the first dismissed. Parking has been reserved so parents can shuttle them to Easton. The PIAA accommodated Northeastern by moving back the quarterfinal start time an hour. Stephens estimated players could leave around 2:45 p.m., but White is cautious about missing anything.

"I still want to get pictures with everybody," he said.

About 20 of his family members, including older brother Richie, are expected for graduation. Not that many will drive for the volleyball match, White said. Even Richie is a maybe for that.

By day's end, both Central and Northeastern will have spent more time on the road than the court playing volleyball.

DEVILBISS SELECTED FOR NATIONAL TEAM >> Northeastern junior Reese Devilbiss was selected this week for USA Volleyball's youth national training team, which will play Aug. 14-23 in Argentina for the FIVB Boys' U19 World Championships. Devilbiss, who verbally committed to Ohio State, is one of 25 players selected for the U.S. roster and the only one from Pennsylvania.

Contact Matt Goul at 771-2045.

If you go

NORTHEASTERN VS. NORTH POCONO

What: PIAA Class AA quarterfinal

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Where: Easton Area Middle School

About Northeastern: The District 3 champion and two-time defending state champion, Northeastern swept District 2's Crestwood, 25-11, 25-13, 25-7, in the first round. The Bobcats are the top-ranked team in the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches' Association poll for Class AA.

About North Pocono: The Trojans will be Northeastern's quarterfinal opponent for the third-straight year. The District 2 runner-up, North Pocono swept Philadelphia-based Engineering and Science in the first round, 25-8, 25-20, 25-10.

CENTRAL YORK VS. SENECA VALLEY

What: PIAA Class AAA quarterfinal

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Altoona Area High School

About Central York: The defending state champs and repeat District 3 champions were ranked fourth in the final regular-season PVCA rankings. The Panthers swept North Penn of District 1 in the first round, 25-12, 25-16, 25-14.

About Seneca Valley: Ranked fifth in the last state coaches' poll, the Raiders finished second in District 7 and lost in that tournament to top-ranked Fox Chapel. They enter the quarterfinals coming off a three-game win in the first round vs. District 8 champ Carrick, 25-6, 25-12, 25-11.

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