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Northeastern wins thriller to return to PIAA final

The Bobcats defeated Manheim Central to play for fifth straight state title.

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It had been awhile since Northeastern got tested like this during a PIAA Class AA boys volleyball tournament.

In fact, the last time the Bobcats even lost one set during state tournament play was the title match in 2013.

But Manheim Central brought everything it could to Tuesday’s PIAA semifinal, played at Red Lion. Still, pressed into survival mode, Northeastern was able to do just that.

Because of it, the four-time defending state champion Bobcats will try to make it five straight on Saturday, after a five-set thriller, 25-23, 22-25, 25-17, 22-25, 15-11.

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Northeastern will face District 7 champ Beaver County Christian in Saturday’s 11 a.m. PIAA title match at Penn State’s Rec Hall.

Ironically, the Bobcats opened the 2017 season at Beaver County Christian and swept the Eagles.

“It had all the makings of a championship situation,” Northeastern coach Matt Wilson said of Tuesday’s match. “You had arguably the top team in the state on the other side of the net from us, you had arguably the other top team on our side. And arguably we are going to be playing the No. 1 in Beaver County Christian.”

Like the previous four sets, the deciding one was close, with the Bobcats leading 7-6 when a couple of hitting errors and a huge Nate Eyster block put Northeastern ahead 10-6.

Not ones to give up, the Barons responded with three straight points and Chase Fahnestock brought Manheim Central within one, 11-10.

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But Cole Brillhart and a Barons’ hitting error accounted for two points, before James Toomey’s booming serve created another chance for Brillhart, who smashed the ball down for a 14-10 lead.

Manheim Central added a point, but a hitting error closed out the epic match.

Wilson said that his team was helped by a pair of five-set matches played during the season.

“We’ve been in best-of-five game thrillers and I reminded them of that,” he said. “I felt that experience helped us out. We gutted it out tonight and it’s as simple as that.”

“We had great practice with Suburban and Dallastown (going five),” said Brillhart, who had four of his 29 kills in the final set. “We had a lot of perseverance and it was really good for us to be challenged like that going into the finals.”

When pushed by the Barons, Northeastern setter Jacob Cheuvront wisely dished to Brillhart.

“It was one of those nights that Cole punched through as a go-to guy and leader for us,” said Wilson. “I think he wanted the reins and tonight I think he grabbed hold of the reins and we followed suit with him.”

Manheim Central showed its moxie in the opening set by overcoming an early five-point deficit to take a 21-20 lead. A Wyatt Hughes kill put Northeastern back on top, but Central answered. Finally, another Hughes kill gave the Bobcats set-point and a service error put them up one game.

An eight-point run helped the Barons capture the second set, before Northeastern took charge in the third. However, Manheim Central had the answer in the fourth, forcing the Bobcats into unusual territory for districts and state tournaments.

“I don’t know how much better we could’ve played,” Barons coach Craig Dietrich said. “I told the guys, ‘I know this isn’t the outcome we wanted, but I am just proud to be your coach when we play like that.’ Two heavyweights going at it, and they were a couple points better than us.”