Ali Koval was hard to miss in Shamokin’s gym on Saturday during the PIAA Class AA Volleyball Quarterfinals against Panther Valley.
After all, the junior libero was the only one wearing red, as both teams were predominantly in black. As easy as she stands out, it will be that hard to erase the memory of how well she played on the biggest stage of her career. The junior had 28 digs, 16 serve receptions without an error, and 10 service points of her own as North Penn-Liberty made history, going further than any team from Southern Tioga has ever gone with their 3-0 (25-20, 25- 20, 25-20) win over District 11 champions Panther Valley.
Koval was everywhere. On serve receive, it seemed like every time Panther Valley would make the mistake of serving her she would gobble the serve up and produce a perfect pass that would end up in an attacking opportunity for the Mounties. Panther Valley had a ton of firepower offensively, led by Erika Dubosky. Repeatedly the Panthers would get isolation opportunities, only to find Koval on the receiving end of their attacks.
Koval embodied a Mountie team that played their best match in the biggest spot of their season so far.
“I could read their hitters. I was reading their hips and shoulders all game,” Koval said. “I’m not usually good at serve receive but tonight I was in the zone.”
Jennifer Nawri could not hold back the praise after the match for Koval.
“She’s phenomenal. She was everywhere and she was leading the back row back there. She is really fun to watch when she is on like that.”
Koval was not the only Mountie to bring it Saturday. Make no mistake, this match was closer than the 3-0 score would suggest. Even the top teams North Penn-Liberty have played like this year like Wellsboro and Holy Redeemer have eventually broke under the relentless Mountie pressure and consistency. Panther Valley made them earn all 75 points.
“Give Panther Valley credit. They did a great job today. So many times we thought we had the momentum totally flipped and they would come back and play great points. That’s a great team,” Nawri said.
What won this Mountie team a berth in the State Semifinal was their incredible resiliency and consistency. Their level of play never dropped throughout the match and Panther Valley never won more than three points in a row. Every time a set seemed to teeter on a particular point, it would be North Penn-Liberty winning the big point.
“We knew we had to buckle down on the big points.” Senior Setter JoAnne McNamara said. “A point here or there can decide a set so when we feel those points coming we gear up for it.”
It was evident right away in the first set that it was going to be an afternoon of high-level volleyball. At 11-11 in the first set, Erika Dubosky sent over a hard hit smash that Koval could only get a hand on. It popped up into the air just enough for Charisma Grega to get a foot on, and she got the ball back in play. After a free ball played back over the net by the Panthers, Maddison Minyo (12 kills, 14 digs) finished the point off with a kill, sending the Mountie girls and crowd into a frenzy.
That point served as the turning point in the first set as NPL would stretch their lead to 19-15 and eventually take the first set 25-20 on another Minyo kill.
The Mounties went on one of their patented scoring runs early in the second set to build up a 12-7 lead. However, Panther Valley answered to bring the score back to 16-13. That’s when Koval made her play of the match. An in-system set was delivered perfectly to Dubosky, who struck the ball as well as possible down towards the ten-foot line. Koval dug the ball just inches from the floor to a perfect pass and set from McNamara and Maddison Minyo found an impossible angle to give the Mounties the point and the momentum as they would carry said momentum to a second set win.
The third set was Panther Valley’s last stand, and they made it count. The Panthers could have easily given in after Grace Tice (13 kills) started the set with three straight kills. They did not and won the next four points and kept hope alive.
However, NPL would rally to take a 12-7 lead and force a timeout, where it surely looked like the spirit of the Panthers had finally given way to the Mounties. Not so, as Panther Valley got the set back to 13-12. As they have all season though, when the going got tough, the Mounties got going. North Penn-Liberty played nearly mistake free volleyball down the stretch, slowly but surely tightening their grip on the match and when Grace Tice’s attack hit the front right corner of the floor, the Mounties found themselves among the state’s final four.
“I think we showed off our resiliency and character and determination tonight,” said head coach Jennifer Nawri.
Now, the Mounties head to a land where only two district IV Volleyball teams have been before, and no one since the 2012 Williamson squad. They stand just one match away from playing for their ultimate goal.
North Penn-Liberty will take on Trinity Tuesday at a site and time to be announced.