Penncrest overcomes sizable disadvantage

MIDDLETOWN — The Penncrest Lions ran into something Tuesday night in their District One Class AAA opener they hadn’t seen all season. The 18th seed from Council Rock North posted three players at the net, all of them standing six feet or taller.

“They put up a great block,’ said Penncrest coach Jennifer Shrader. “It was a matter of us figuring it out.’

In the first game, the Indians’ height made the difference. North blocked Penncrest’s shots at the net. The Lions overhit others in an effort to avoid the tall defenders. But good teams adjust, and Penncrest is a good team.

“We had to play smart on offense,’ Shrader said. “We saw the line was open on the outside. We took advantage.’

After dropping the first set 25-16, the 15th-seeded Lions responded with three straight wins (25-20, 25-18, 25-22) to take a 3-1 home victory.

“We always tend to finish strong,’ said Bridgette Devlin, one of two Penncrest seniors. “Once we got our energy up we knew we’d be fine.’

Devlin so often provided that energy. As the lone libero on the team, Devlin played the entire match, and well. She dove to keep balls alive that otherwise would’ve fallen for points.

“Her energy and leadership keeps that team together,’ said Shrader.

Her outside hitters also turned it on in the final three sets. Sophomore Diana Balta and junior captain Emily Hopkins combined for 31 kills and 40 digs.

“When you have a tall block in front of you, you need to adjust and go around them,’ Hopkins said. “I think the final three games I figured out how to use the blockers for my advantage.’

It showed in the second game. The Lions led from start to finish to regain their confidence. The third set produced a similar result, while the fourth provided the stiffest test for Penncrest. The Lions trailed 19-18, but rallied to take the 25-22 win.

With a roster dominated by underclassmen, Penncrest’s youth aids their volleyball prowess.

“I think it’s vital,’ Hopkins said of her young group of teammates. “We can only get stronger.’

“We’re all very young, very quick,’ added Devlin, who had 27 digs in the contest. “Once we get up, we can put (the other team) away.’

Devlin also credited the fans, who crowded Kaufman Gym to provide a substantial home-court advantage.

“The dog pound was awesome,’ Devlin said of the student section, which surrounded her as she spoke after the victory and cheered accordingly. “That definitely got us more pumped up.’

Now the Lions (15-4) will head to Upper Merion Thursday night to try and keep their postseason hopes alive. They’ll do so with a new confidence gained from a comeback win.

“They believe in themselves,’ said Shrader. “That’s a key. I tell them it’s not always the tallest team that wins, it’s the one with the most heart.’

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