GREENSBURG — It all started with a promise made between the team on the bus ride home from Mechanicsburg after falling in the PIAA title match last year.
On Saturday, that promise gave Philipsburg-Osceola the extra drive it needed to power past an undefeated Harbor Creek team in four sets to return to the PIAA semis.
“We didn’t want to go home losers, we wanted to go home winners,” said senior setter Kalista Butler. “We wanted to keep going in the tournament.”
It all came down to that at Hempfield H.S. against the Lady Huskies, the District 10 champs, in the fourth set after Harbor Creek rallied from two sets down to win the third set 25-23.
Not wanting to go to a fifth set, the Lady Mounties dug deep and got back to the basics of what they do best — blocking, serving aggressive and relying on their big hitters.
“We were trying to switch Reese around a little bit to get some touches on the ball,” said P-O head coach Dave Eckberg. “We made some adjustments because their slide hitter was moving the ball around. “Their middle kept going cross-court. We tried to slide our block over a little more. But it was just a gutsy win there, because Harbor Creek really started to come on.
“We did not want a game five.”
Philipsburg-Osceola looked like it might cruise to a sweep after the first two sets, toppling the Lady Huskies 25-14 and 25-11.
But Harbor Creek rallied and looked like a different team in the third set.
The Lady Huskies made the Lady Mounties work in the third set, mixing up hard cross-court shots with tips over the P-O blockers.
“That third set they passed a lot better, so they were able to run a lot of different sets, so that threw us off,” said Butler. “But after that we figured it out and were able to get the win.”
Outsides Maura Benim and Elena Cubero were the beneficiaries of the aggressive approach, as both recorded big kills to help extend some service runs.
The key run was a four-point stretch at the service line by Benim, giving the Lady Huskies a 20-15 advantage.
The Lady Mounties did rally back to have a chance at the sweep, as Josie Tekely served up four straight points to cut it to 22-21.
But a service error and a big kill by Sam Zank gave Harbor Creek the win and new life in the match.
“First, I want to say how much guts Harbor Creek played with,” Eckberg said. “They looked a little nervous in games one and two and they could have packed things up and gone home. But they really started to play smart. I like their outside. She was crafty with the ball and smart. And, we didn’t play great defense there.
“In game three we started to make some errors. In games one and two, I thought we were very clean and we talked about that. That was the difference. We started to make some errors and Harbor Creek started to play really smart.
“It was good for us to have to come back today. That’s something we maybe lean on the next time we play. We can say, ‘Yes we have done this before.’”
The fourth set looked to be going Harbor Creek’s way too, as Eckberg called a timeout down 10-4 after a three-point run by Zank at the service line.
The stoppage allowed the Lady Mounties to regroup and remember that promise they made to each other almost a year ago on that somber bus ride back to Philipsburg.
“The reason we lost that third set was due to the fact we were making a lot of the errors ourselves — from the service line, hitting and we weren’t passing very well,” said senior libero Janey Johnson.
“He just told us just to play our game and we’d get back to where we were and we would be able to take the win.”
Philipsburg-Osceola seemed energized after the timeout, getting a side out on a hitting error by the Lady Huskies.
Johnson, one of the Lady Mounties best servers, stepped to the line and served up four points to cut the Harbor Creek lead to 10-9.
Paige Jarrett had two blocks during the run, while London Cutler had a kill.
The Lady Mounties continued to chip away, as Annie Johnson served up two points to make it 12-11.
Harbor Creek got the side out on a Cubero kill, but Philipsburg-Osceola got the ball right back on a kill by Jayden Perks.
But the biggest run came as the Lady Mounties found themselves down 16-15.
Reese Hazelton grabbed a big kill for a sideout and Butler stepped to the service line.
From there, she reeled off five points to give P-O a 21-16 lead and force a Lady Huskies timeout.
Hazelton, Cutler and Abby Lumadue all had kills during that span, while Hazelton also had a block.
The teams traded sideouts with the Lady Mounties getting the ball back up 22-17.
Hazelton finished it off with three aces for the 25-17 set victory and match win.
“We are normally a pretty good blocking team,” Johnson said. “It didn’t really show through in the first couple of sets, especially in set three where they were getting through the block a lot. I think that was giving their hitters confidence.
“But in the fourth set, we were able to pull out our good blocking technique and I think it helped calm their hitters down.”
Hazelton had 28 kills, 16 digs, 13 service points, seven aces and three blocks.
Cutler finished with 16 kills and 11 digs, while Johnson had 18 digs and 12 service points.
Butler tallied 48 assists, 10 service points and five digs. Lumadue had three kills and a block, while Perks had three blocks and a kill. Jarrett ended with two blocks and a kill.
Tekely both had eight service points with three aces, while Annie Johnson added three aces.
Bella Curtorillo had four digs.
Philipsburg-Osceola will play North Catholic on Tuesday at Keystone H.S. in Knox in the PIAA semifinals.
“We are expecting a good North Catholic team,” Johnson said. “They are good every year. They have some new players in the back court, but their defense is always good.
“I’m excited it will be a neutral site this year. Last year, we had to travel to North Catholic, but I think it will be a good match either way.”
Match time is set for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.