North Catholic finds peak playoff form, sweeps Latrobe in boys volleyball semifinal

Tuesday, May 23, 2023 | 10:20 PM

The stage appeared a bit too bright Tuesday night for top-seeded Latrobe at the WPIAL Class 2A boys volleyball semifinals, and No. 4 North Catholic could sense it.

The Trojans took control of the best-of-five match early, putting the Wildcats on their heels and seizing a 3-0 victory at Gateway on scores of 25-18, 25-23, 30-28 to advance to the championship match.

Lucas Gunther paved the way for an attacking North Catholic offense with 24 kills. Drew Palmer added 11, and Ro Alessandro assisted on 37 points as the Trojans used an 8-0 run early in the first game to set an aggressive tone.

“We came in as the underdogs, so we had to make something happen,” said Gunther, a 6-foot-1 junior outside hitter. “To be honest, I just think we had it in us. We had more to give.”

North Catholic will play No. 8 Ambridge in the championship match Thursday at Peters Township at a time to be determined. The Bridgers upset No. 3 Mars, 3-0, in an earlier semifinals match on scores of 25-23, 25-22, 25-21.

Latrobe and Mars will battle in a consolation match to determine the third and final PIAA playoff spot.

“They were a great team, and we practiced on Monday all for them,” North Catholic coach Stacie Ball said. “We looked at film, and we knew what they were running and their rotations and took charge in the beginning. That kind of shook them up a little bit.”

Latrobe fell behind 10-2 in the first game before inching back into contention, closing within four points on three occasions, the last at 18-14. But North Catholic (15-4) regrouped to pull away down the stretch for the 25-18 decision.

The last two games were much closer, but the top-ranked Wildcats had no answer for North Catholic’s assault, which led to a pair of tense, two-point victories.

Tyler Nelson led Latrobe (11-5) with 15 kills.

“We knew where we wanted to serve on every one of their rotations, and my guys did a great job and really came out strong,” Ball said. “Latrobe moves the ball around and uses all of their hitters. They spread out their kills, all of them usually have nine or 10 kills, a bunch of them.”

Ball said most other teams, including her own, play traditionally the same style, where outside hitters can be primaries but middle hitters and right side players demand as much attention from opponents.

“The way they play, it makes them hard to block because they move the ball around so well,” she said. “We put together a game plan together, as a team. We watched film, and they executed and, boy, that was a heck of a performance.”

The second set was a seesaw affair that saw neither team able to take control before North Catholic outlasted Latrobe in the final stages to set the 25-23 outcome.

The third and final game was an epic battle that saw Latrobe use a 7-1 run to seemingly gain control before North Catholic rallied to take a 20-19 lead.

The teams eventually ended up deadlocked at 25-25, sending matters into overtime, where the Trojans finally ended things by again scoring the final two points and coming away with the 30-28 final.

“We studied them, studied them, studied them. Unfortunately, we played tight today,” Latrobe coach Drew Vosefski said. “We normally will send the ball around even more. We played a tight game, and you could tell from the very beginning. Maybe some of the younger guys weren’t used to the spotlight.”

Sam Kiesel added nine kills for Latrobe.

“We’ll go back to the drawing board.” Vosefski said. “This might be a learning lesson for the younger guys that it’s on a big stage, but it’s still just a volleyball match. So suck it up, buttercup, and play. It just comes with maturation and having the confidence to do it on a big stage.”

Gunther joined with his teammates and fans following North Catholic’s improbable shutout, giving a nod to Latrobe’s fight.

“They were really good,” he said. “That was the hardest game we played all year, and that was the best game we played all year. Our practice and how we practice and our mindset won us that game. We just had fun. That’s how we win. When we win big games, we go out there and have fun.”

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