FALLS TWP. – When Pennsbury fell a little short of its goal of winning the District 1 championship, falling in five sets to three-time champ Pennridge in the D1 title tilt, it forced the Falcons to take a long, hard look at themselves.
Since the PIAA-opening win over District 12 champion George Washington on Tuesday, May 30, the coaching staff has been working feverishly to revamp the Pennsbury offense. With a state quarterfinal battle against District 3 rival Central York looming on the horizon (Saturday, June 3 at Schuylkill Valley, Leesport, Pa.) head coach Justin Fee says there is a dire need to get more players involved in the Falcon attack.
“The way teams are blocking us right now is they’re taking their left-side hitter and they’re double-blocking our middle and allowing their middle-hitter to release to Sean (Sweeney) and Louie (Bavas).
“In order to combat that, you have to have a right-side offense.
“Sean and Louie are great players but when you get this far in the (state) playoffs, two of those guys are not going to win you those big matches.
“It’s going to have to be a team effort.”
Fee notes that it’s not necessary to win districts in order to make a deep run in states. In fact, the Falcons did not win districts three of the four times they made it to the PIAA finals. While the 2013 team – the last to reach state finals – was the exception, the 2007 squad is a perfect example.
The District 1-AAA runner-up that season, the ’07 Pennsbury team toppled State College and Central York while falling to Hempfield in pool play. From there, the Falcons outpaced Souderton in the semis to reach the state championship.
“The loss in the District finals caused us to go back and watch tape and reevaluate how we’re doing things,” said Fee. “In a short period of time, we were able to make some small adjustments to make the difference to make it all the way to the (state final).”
The coach says that game-planning for Central York has focused around the Pennsbury team as opposed to the Panthers, who swept Northeastern to claim their first York-Adams Interscholastic Athletic Association (YAIAA) league title since 2014.
“A lot of years, I pay a lot of attention to what the opponent is doing and game-planned for how we’re going to block them – how we’re going to defend them,” said Fee. “This year, I’m paying closer attention to us so that we can expand offensively.”
“I think that’s what’s been holding us back against some of the better teams – being able to put the ball away when we need it.”
“At this level, if you don’t put the ball away on that first opportunity that you get, the other team probably is because they all have good, strong hitters.”
Making adjustments is what it’s all about for volleyball coaches. Just ask Pennridge coach Dave Childs who turned his rotation in game four of the D1 final against the Falcons. Fee says the adjustment allowed Rams outside hitter Ben Chinnici some lanes he didn’t have in games two and three which were won by Pennsbury.
“He cranked back on his rotation so that (Chinnici) was matched up with a different set of (our) guys, which wasn’t our strongest group of blockers,” explained Fee. “That helped them a lot in the fourth set.”
It was a bold move on the part of Childs and Fee gave the winning coach the credit he deserved.
“That was big for them because they were down; we were up 2-1,” said Fee. “For him to make that adjustment took a lot of guts and smarts on his part to do that.”
After not making it to states in 2014 and 2015, the Falcons took third place in the district last year then lost to Penn Manor in four sets in the first round of states.
Failing to make states in 2014 and ’15 proved to be a blessing in disguise, said Fee.
“Making it to states wasn’t just a hope and a dream; it was something we did every single year,” said Fee. “To not have that in ‘14 and ‘15 was tough.
It forced the current crop of team leaders to encourage all the others to improve.
On Tuesday, May 30 in the opening round of states, Pennsbury used a late 7-1 run to take game one from Washington, then blew past the Eagles 25-9 and 25-19 to sweep their Philly Public League rivals from states.
Sweeney led the Falcons with 12 kills, 11 digs, four aces and three blocks while Bavas added nine kills and five digs. Sophomore setter Andrew Delworth also stepped up with 26 assists to go along with seven digs while junior libero Charlie Bluestein chipped in with eight digs.
“This team right now is starting to move us back to that winning upward trend, which I’m really proud of,” said Fee. “It’s a big thing for these guys; we have a lot of quality kids in this program.”
The coach of the Pennsbury boys team for the past 14 years, Fee has led the Falcons to four D1 titles and four runner-up slots. As a senior at PHS, he helped the team win a district title and then to the PIAA quarterfinals, which, at the time was the furthest Pennsbury had ever gone in states.
In 2004, Fee’s first year as coach, the Falcons toppled District 7 rivals North Allegheny and Ambridge before falling to District 3 rival Hempfield in the finals.
For the coach, a state title is the golden goose.
“It definitely means a lot to me to get back there and to win it would be a lifelong dream,” said Fee. “I wanted to win a state championship for Pennsbury when I played and I had an opportunity to come back here and get to a state tournament my first year as a head coach so I’m dying to get one.”
Helping the Falcons in pursuit of the goal are Pennsbury alums Ryan Bigos (2008/Penn State) and Jeff Yasolonis (2013/Mount Olive), current volunteer coaches who have returned to the Falcons Nest to pitch in.
“They’re back here to pass information along,” said Fee. “It’s just another set of eyes on (our players) to help us get over that hump, clear up some of the key things you need to do to help you become an elite volleyball team as opposed to just a good one.”
Central York – Pennsbury’s opponent in the next round – captured this year’s YAIAA Tournament title with a 3-0 win over York Suburban and a 3-2 win over Northeastern, ironically, the only team to top the Falcons during the regular season in match play.
The Panthers captured the District 3 title with wins over Cumberland Valley, Dallastown and Central Dauphin. During the season, Central York took a pair of sets from Pennsbury in the Kolar Classic, hosted on the Panthers’ home court.
Central York is guided by Brad Livingston and led onto the court by seniors Carter Luckenbaugh and Ben Seebold along with junior Cole Johnson, a 6-7, 240-pound behemoth the Falcons will find tough to defend. Attacking the net for the Panthers are setter/outside hitter Landon Shorts and outside hitter Jason Gardner. Both are headed to Maryland’s Stevenson University to play volleyball, while outside hitter Jeremiah Dadeboe is going to Buffalo to play football next season.
TOP PHOTO: Pennsbury seniors Louie Bavas, left, and Adam Hludzinski (15) attack the net in District 1 championship matchup with Pennridge May 25, 2017 at William Tennent High School. (Steve Sherman – 21st-Century Media)