Under clear skies, Kiski Area defeats Norwin in Pack the Park volleyball match

Tuesday, August 29, 2023 | 11:15 PM

Last year’s Pack the Park girls volleyball event between Norwin and Kiski Area didn’t make it to the Ellen Toy Grass Court at Vandergrift’s Kennedy Park as rain chased officials, fans and both teams inside to Kiski Area High School.

But no such change of plans was necessary Tuesday evening.

The crowd outdoors was treated to JV and varsity games in ideal weather conditions.

Kiski Area captured the varsity match 3-1, but the outcome didn’t overtake what Kiski Area senior Abbie Johns said was a fun early-season celebration of the game between the Cavaliers and Knights.

“This is an amazing and a very unique experience playing on the grass court,” said Johns, whose hit at match point was not returned and gave Kiski Area the victory. “We’re thankful and appreciative that Norwin comes out each year to play with us. It is just a meaningful experience. We all want to play for Ellen.”

Pack the Park helps raise funds each year for the We Serve First Foundation, started with the help of Tim Toy to honor the memory and legacy of his late wife, Ellen Toy, who coached volleyball for many years at Kiski Area and other schools in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

The first Pack the Park match between the Cavaliers and Knights was in 2021 with Norwin winning 3-1. Last year, Kiski Area returned the favor and scored a 3-2 victory.

“This is just such a beautiful evening,” Toy said while watching the match unfold. “The kids from both teams are playing so well. It is good, competitive volleyball. That’s what we expected for this match. It is played in this setting, which makes it all the better. I love it.”

Kiski Area won the first two sets, 26-24 and 25-16. Junior Jael Ledbetter finished the close first set with a hit into the Norwin defense that wasn’t returned.

Norwin didn’t fold its tent, however. Led by senior 6-foot-1 senior hitter Lauren Palangio and senior captains Ava Kobus and Jillian Pensenstadler, the Knights grabbed the lead early in the third set and never trailed en route to a 25-16 victory.

But it was Kiski Area’s match, and the Cavaliers took control of the fourth and final set. Johns, senior Cora Coleman, sophomore Makayla Keibler and others helped forge a 7-0 run that opened a 15-5 led.

Norwin cut the deficit to seven on one occasion, but the Cavaliers were strong down the stretch, leading to Johns’ set-winning hit.

“This was a great match in a great atmosphere,” Kiski Area first-year coach Dakoda Fickes said. “It wasn’t too hot, too cold or too humid. With all the people here and the two teams, it created a great setting for volleyball. It was a great way to kick off the season. We hope that this can keep going.”

Norwin, under the direction of veteran coach Mary Ellen Ferragonio, a longtime friend and coaching colleague of Ellen Toy, said it is special for her and for her team to be a part of this event for the third time.

“It is an honor to be a part of it, not just for Ellen, but also for what We Serve First does to promote volleyball and what it does for so many people,” she said. “It extends the wonderful legacy Ellen left.

“This is such a special thing for both teams to come together and play and open the season in such a meaningful way.”

Toy said there were so many people who came together to make the event possible. He credited the athletic office at Kiski for bring in items of infrastructure, including chairs, tables and tents.

“They help make my job easy,” Toy said. “All I had to do is line the court, make sure the net was the right height and make sure everything with the court was right.”

Toy said plans are in the works for next year’s match, and, he said, he hopes Norwin will be back.

“I think this is going to become a staple at the start of each season,” he said. “It has turned into something that we have to do every year. We were fortunate tonight to have gotten the great weather. There always are the concerns that it isn’t an even court or it can get slippery at the end of the match, but as long as we continue to have the blessings of the coaching staffs, we will keep doing this. It doesn’t seem like the girls were holding anything back with their play.

“While the event does help the We Serve First Foundation, I don’t care to make money from this. What I hope we can do with it is show the community what a wonderful game this is and have people come out and watch the game. Maybe we get a few into the gym this season who wouldn’t be there otherwise.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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