Freeport juniors Russo, Jack ready for ‘prime time’ in PIAA playoffs

Thursday, November 8, 2018 | 10:24 PM

Isabella Russo saw a couple of rotations for the Freeport girls volleyball team in last year’s postseason run which culminated in a PIAA Class AA championship.

The 6-foot junior middle hitter took advantage of training sessions at Pitt Elite in the offseason and returned this fall with expectations of an increased role among the middle hitters that included senior returning starters Haley Graham and Sarah Hettich.

“Haley and Sarah and the other girls really pushed me and showed me what it took to be a state champion,” Russo said. “Going up against them in practice really helped me improve.”

But with Graham and Hettich going down with injuries over the past couple of months — Graham suffered a knee injury at a summer volleyball camp and Hettich went down with a foot injury against Knoch on Oct. 10 — Russo has had to step up even more and has been a consistent presence on the court for the Yellowjackets.

She will be right in the mix Saturday as Freeport (19-4) continues its quest for back-to-back PIAA crowns with a state-quarterfinal contest against WPIAL champion North Catholic at 1 p.m. at North Allegheny High School.

“I think I’ve gotten better from playing more and just pushing myself,” Russo said. “I know my teammates are really counting on me. I was really excited to start the season. I knew I had to step up my game and work hard every day.”

Freeport coach Tom Phillips said Russo has been impressive with her play at the net.

“We thought she would play a substantial role, but it would still be a learning year for her,” he said. “With the original plan of having Haley and Sarah both healthy for every game, I though Isabella would be kind of a buffer between the two and give them breaks or start games.

“She’s a very good blocker and swinger and is always in good position to make a play.”

While Graham is back in the middle, Hettich, who hasn’t played since the game against Knoch, is doubtful for Saturday.

The Yellowjackets came together Tuesday and shut down a Redbank Valley team that had won 17 straight. The District 9 champion Bulldogs were never in the match as Freeport swept them to bounce back from its loss to Frazier in the WPIAL semifinals.

“Tuesday’s win was a total team effort,” said Russo, who contributed seven kills and three blocks in the 3-0 victory. “Everyone helped contribute in their own way. We needed that.”

The injury bug this season also bit the hitter position on the outside as junior Tori Radvan was lost for the season with a knee injury in the opener against North Allegheny.

Phillips expected junior Lauren Lampus and Radvan to handle those outside hitter roles, and junior Mackensey Jack would be in a similar situation as Russo with a backup role.

But Jack, Phillips said, stepped up to be a featured player in the rotation. She sparked Freeport from the start against Redbank Valley with a kill on the opening point in Game 1, and she led an early run from the service line in the game that put the Yellowjackets in control. She finished the match with eight kills, 16 service points and three aces.

Jack, at 5-10, also moved to the middle in a pinch during the Knoch match.

“Mackensey took on the role presented to her and has thrived,” Phillips said. “Both Mackensey and Isabella’s confidence has grown so much this season and also has helped them as they build for next season. They showed the coaches quickly that they were ready for prime time.”

The winner of Saturday’s game will move into the semifinals Tuesday against either District 6 champion Bald Eagle Area or District 10 champ Corry.

“Everyone has had to step up,” Russo said. “Some have moved around and taken on different roles. That will also help us for the future because we’ll be more versatile. I am really proud of the way we’ve been able to fight through it all and still play well.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-388-5825, or via Twitter @MLove_Trib.


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