By NEIL GEOGHEGAN
DOWNINGTOWN – There was a point, during an epic fourth set that featured an astounding 11 ties and countless lead changes, that Downingtown West head volleyball coach David Parrish couldn’t help but think back to his team’s regular season battle with West Chester Rustin.
“Ending it in the fourth set was certainly the plan this time — we did not want to go five with this team,” Parrish acknowledged.
Nine days earlier, the Whippets needed five grueling sets to finally edge the shorthanded Golden Knights. But on Thursday, in a second round District 1 Class AAAA Playoffs, West dug deep within to survive the fourth set marathon and put Rustin away 3-1. The scores were 25-18, 25-20, 21-25, 27-25.
“I commend our girls on their grit,” Parrish said. “We were down a game point at 24-23 and we came back. I’m proud of them. We played very well and we had to. Rustin is a well-coached, talented team.”
Now 16-2 overall, the fourth-seeded Whippets advance to play another Ches-Mont foe on Tuesday: No. 5 Avon Grove, who swept Methacton 3-0. The 13th-seeded Knights finish the 2016 season with a 14-8 mark.
“I would have liked to get (Downingtown West) to a fifth set and see if we could have pulled it out,” said Rustin head coach Harry Bitberger.
Much like the earlier meeting, the Whippets got off to a fast start in each of the first two sets, dropped the third, and were precariously close to falling in the fourth. One of sophomore Emma Nelson’s team-high 15 kills put Rustin just one point away from forcing a fifth set, but West kept fighting.
“At that point, it’s just a matter of who is going to overcome the nerves and make that big first touch and get their team into the system in order to get a good swing at it,” Parrish said.
Down the stretch, senior Sophie Gelling had a block and two critical kills to keep West in it. One kill made it 24-24 to erase one game point, and another inched West ahead 26-25, setting the stage for sophomore Hailey Lewis to close it out with a kill of her own.
“Every single point was a fight,” said Gelling, who paced the Whippets with 15 kills. “There is a lot of mutual respect between these two teams, so everybody was playing as hard as they could on every point. It was one of the most exciting sets to play in.”
Downingtown West scored five of the first six points and went on to win the opening set, and then took command with another early run in set No. 2. The Knights never led, but did pull to a 20-20 tie before the Whippets scored the last five points on Lewis’ serve.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had a first round bye in districts, so we hadn’t played in eight days and we did not have a great week of practice, to be honest. But we came out on fire,” Parrish said.
“We are an excitable team,” Bitberger explained. “It was an emotional night for our seniors. They wanted to do well and they probably put more pressure on themselves. There were some factors, but you can’t fall behind like that.”
Rustin flipped the script in the third set, thanks to some timely kills from Nelson and Kaia Johnson.
“We settled down in the third set and then came out swinging in the fourth,” Bitberger said. “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Johnson finished with six blocks, Lauren Hayes had 18 digs and Emily Supplee added three aces for the Knights. Outside hitter Aly Reardon chipped in 11 kills for West.
“This shows how much we’ve grown as a team just in the last nine days,” Gelling said. “I feel a performance like this is an indication of what we can do the rest of the postseason.”