TOWAMENCIN >> Anthony Bernardo came into Tuesday’s state playoff opener with the right approach.
The Dock Mennonite Academy senior outside hitter came into the first round Class 2A match against Holy Redemeer with the approach to find the ball in the most important spots. It was his work on the actual approach to the ball that allowed him to keep being there time and time again, including for the go-ahead swing in a tightly contested deciding third game.
Bernardo led the way, but Dock had plenty of balance and contributors, sweeping the Royals 3-0 behind 25-14, 25-11 and 25-21 scores to advance to Saturday’s quarterfinals.
“I definitely want the ball, I want to get the momentum and keep it hot so we can build a lead,” Bernardo said. “I definitely think I’m a key weapon in those moments when we’re down.”
Bernardo swung for a team-high 10 kills on 18 tries, adding five service aces, five digs and was in on a block as the hot hand for a Pioneers offense that kept the ball moving and Holy Redeemer adapting from the start. Outside hitter Sean Gillespie had eight kills and three digs, opposite hitter Dylan Gable had seven kills and was in on two blocks while middle blocker Cameron LeSure was effective with seven kills and in on three of Dock’s eight blocks.
Setting it all up was senior setter Lane Bergey, who posted 27 assists, had a block that was the winning point in the first game and even got into it defensively with seven digs. Stellan Derstine and Trevor Ridge also combined for three assists from the libero position.
“All season long, these guys have had great grit and determination,” Dock coach Kirby King said. “Even if they get down, they just go and they want back out there and to go after it. I’m often standing close to our captain, Lane, and I’ll ask if he wants a timeout and he just says ‘no,’ they just want to play and want to go and that’s going to serve us well, we hope.”
Holy Redeemer, the runner-up in District 2, came out energized and had a 6-3 lead early in the first game. A kill by Lesure put Dock in front 9-8 and got Bernardo behind the service line, where he led the Pioneers to three more points before helping close the game out with four kills in the last seven points.
Again, his imprint was all over key spots in the second game. Bernardo knocked down a kill off a Bergey assist to knot the score 4-4 and starting a 6-0 Dock run before the Royals battled back to get within 10-9. A hitting error gave Dock a point and put Bernardo behind the line to serve, where he took control of the game with three aces in what became a 10-0 run before adding another kill in the Pioneer’s 4-0 finishing salvo to take a commanding lead in the match.
“It started with his approach angle,” King said. “We’ve really been working on that and tonight he had a really good approach angle. He was reaching high, causing their blockers to reach high too and they couldn’t close, so he was pounding it right off their hands.”
Bernardo chalked his success behind the line to a new tweak, and his overall solid play to a strong continuity with his teammates.
“I was just working into the seam, playing off the back line and looking for the tip off the block,” Bernardo said. “My serve, I tried a new approach bringing it across my body and it kind of worked, just keeping it on my right side and that’s where I found my success tonight.
“Getting those tempo sets, the faster sets in system, has definitely helped us to get around our opponents more and decrease the size of the block.”
King was impressed with his team’s defensive play on Tuesday, especially the blocking up front at the net, saying that’s the area where the Pioneers have most improved over the course of the season. The Dock coach credited Holy Redeemer for being able to split the block on a number of chances, something that’s usually hard to do and can make it difficult for a defense to react to but felt his players were able to get to most of the tips and cover around the block really well.
After controlling the opening two games of the match, Dock found itself in a battle to close things out. Holy Redeemer kept hanging around, even after Bernardo laid down a couple kills for a 15-12 lead then came out of a well-used timeout to roll off four straight points and take a 20-19 lead.
A violation gave Dock a point to tie it up then, as they had all match, the Pioneers went to Bernardo in a big spot. The senior, who will attend Liberty and play club and beach volleyball, slammed down the go-ahead kill and sparked a 5-0 spurt that put the hosts in position to win, which they finally did when Dylan Gable knocked down the winning swing.
“We’re a very balanced team with a lot of different weapons,” Bernardo said. “We have a lefty, two righties with different hitting skills and having a variety of weapons and hitters is a key to a great, successful team.”
Dock, a state semifinalist last season, has a tall task awaiting in Saturday’s quarterfinal round against District 3 runner-up Exeter Township, which dispatched Lansdale Catholic 3-0 (25-20, 25-14, 25-17) a few miles away on Tuesday night and has dropped just one match all season.
With four seniors at the heart of this team, Bernardo said this was the year they had all planned to make their big run through and try to take the program to its first state title.
“I don’t know that it’s avenging, they felt pretty good about last year, they want a repeat. I think that would be the right word,” King said. “They’re into it. They’re practicing, then staying after and asking to work on extra stuff, it’s exciting and fun to work with a crew like this.”