Barons bring home PIAA silver medal

By on June 13, 2018
Manheim Central senior’s Gabriel Stewart (front) and Ben Burkhart (2) greet the Barons’ fans with the PIAA State Double-A runner-up trophy following last Saturday’s match against Northeaster. Photo by Alan Johnson

Manheim Central senior’s Gabriel Stewart (front) and Ben Burkhart (2) greet the Barons’ fans with the PIAA State Double-A runner-up trophy following last Saturday’s match against Northeaster. Photo by Alan Johnson

As 7th-graders, Manheim Central’s seniors won the first-ever tournament in which they competed.

Last Saturday, those seven Baron players earned themselves the opportunity to bookend their high school career with another win.

In the PIAA State Double-A finals, no less.

“I said to the guys, ‘Wouldn’t it be fitting just to end that way today — the first one you ever played in and the last one you ever played,” Manheim Central coach Craig Dietrich said.

Things couldn’t have started out any better for the MC boys, as they took the first set 25-23 from Northeastern, who came in having captured the last five straight PIAA championships.

But the Bobcats responded and took the next three by scores of 25-13, 25-22, 25-13, clinching a 3-1 victory over Manheim Central in front of a large, boisterous throng inside Penn State University’s historic Rec Hall.

“They played their hearts out,” said Dietrich, whose team ended a magical year at 22-3. “That’s what we asked them to do. That’s an incredible effort. I think I probably speak for them that I never had the opportunity to play here in this building and it’s definitely a special place to play. It’s a great reward for a long, hard season. We’re extremely proud of the effort and these young gentlemen.”

On their way to winning a sixth consecutive State crown, Northeastern (23-0) lost just four sets all spring — one of those being to MC last Saturday.

“I think it speaks volumes to how good they are,” said Dietrich from the dais in the media room, “and how well prepared and coached they are. We like our chances any time we take the court and I was coming in fully expecting — and I think these guys were — to win today. I don’t think there’s anybody who felt differently, quite frankly. It’s a tough opponent. They’re not going to get too much tougher than that.”

The Barons had their sights set on another win in the third game, leading 19-18 following one of Isaac Shenk’s seven kills. But Northeastern was able to pull out a tight three-point win down the stretch.

“I said to the guys, ‘It wasn’t David and Goliath,’” Dietrich said. “You saw today, I think we played well enough and I think if that third game goes a little bit differently, we make a couple of plays there at the end, we’re probably either still playing or just finished.”

The Barons were certainly making plays in the opening set, and when Mason Nissley scored on a block early on, MC set the tone and went up 1-0.

“It definitely gave us the feeling of, ‘Alright, we’re good, we’re here, we’ve got this. Let’s go.’ We didn’t have any doubts in our minds,” said Nissley, who had a team-high 13 kills and six digs.

“To come out here in this venue,” Dietrich added, “and not be nervous right out of the gate was just absolutely huge for us. I know I was a little bit excited, so I’m sure these guys were probably a little excited. But we’ve stressed all year long that as soon as the whistle blows, ‘OK, after the first point or two, it’s volleyball, whether you’re in Rec Hall or Hulleball Gymnasium.’”

Eventually, the Barons’ advantage grew to 8-4 on one of Tanner Stauffer’s 12 kills and 10-5 on a swing by Brandyn Musser (five kills, four digs).

Once Manheim Central and Northeastern reached the teens, they traded sideouts until a kill by Isaac Shenk put MC in front 24-20. The Bobcats responded with three straight points to get within one, but Stauffer’s swing sealed a 25-23 MC win.

“There’s not too many teams than can hang with (Northeastern) and getting that first game, I thought, was a big confidence boost for us,” Dietrich said. “We knew we had to come out and win one of those first two games. I mean, I said that about our guys all year long. We’re a good volleyball team and trying to beat us three out of five is difficult. So we knew it was going to take a good effort today.”

Northeastern’s late points in game one seemed to give them a spark, and back-to-back spikes by Cole Brillhart, who finished with a match 17 kills, gave the Bobcats a quick 5-2 cushion. Wyatt Hughes and Alex Finch added 13 and nine kills, respectively, for Northeastern.

“At the end of the first game,” Stauffer said, “they got a little bit of momentum, but we were able to pull it out. And then the second game, we weren’t getting in system the first three or four points and it just didn’t go our way from there on out.”

The Barons were still within 5-4 following Shenk’s (four digs, block) swing and a Bobcat error.

But an 11-3 run by Northeastern, capped by Austin Richards’ kill, stretched the Bobcats’ lead to 16-7, leading them to the 25-13 win. The first team to score won each of the first three sets.

“They’re tough to prepare for,” Dietrich said. “I mean, the things that they do on their side, the speed that they go at, it’s near-impossible to simulate.”

Still, Manheim Central hung tough in the third, even after falling behind early 6-1. Kills by Nissley and Stauffer started the Baron on run in which they tallied six of seven points to tie it 7-all.

From there, Nissley’s block and Stauffer’s kill gave MC leads of 12-11 and 13-12. Later, they still led 19-18 on a swing by Shenk, and then kills by Nissley pulled the Barons even at 20-all and 21-all.

Then, trailing 22-21, the Barons caught a tough break to go down by two, and Northeastern went on complete a hard-fought 25-22 victory.

“If we get a couple breaks … it was a sideout fest in that third game, it was 22-21 and Tanner had what we thought was a nice play off the block and into the antenna and the official down the line had it another way. It was just those little things that it went from being 22-22 to 23-21.”

In the fourth, Gabriel Stewart’s kill put MC up 1-0 and a Northeastern net serve tied it 2-all before the Bobcats used a 7-1 run to go in front 9-3.

The Barons got back as close as 13-9 on a kill by Nissley and 18-12 on Nissley’s swing, but Northeastern finished with a 7-1 burst — capped by Alex Finch’s block — to close things out.

For the Barons, reaching the PIAA finals was the culmination to a season in which they also advanced to the L-L League and District Three Double-A championship matches, coming home with silvers after losing to Hempfield and Northeastern.

In the end, the Black Knights — who finished as the PIAA Triple-A runner-ups — and Bobcats were responsible for the Barons’ only three losses.

“I don’t like silver medals,” Dietrich said. “I didn’t like the one at Leagues, I didn’t like the one at Districts. I’ll settle for this silver one — we’re one of the best two teams in the State out of, what, 89 Double-A teams?” These guys have put in a lot of work the last six years. I mean, they’ve done everything they’ve been asked to do and they’ve done it extremely well without questioning. They brought it every single day. I know they’ve had a ton of fun doing it and it’s been my pleasure to be in charge of these young men. It’s going to be incredibly tough to replace what we have here. It’s special, this group of guys.”

Senior setter Ben Burkhart, who finished with 39 assists, was in total agreement.

“Just like Craig was saying earlier, playing in (Rec Hall) and getting the chance to come this far — no Manheim team has done it before,” he said. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I don’t think any of these guys will either. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the gold, but we gave it our all and played our hearts out.”

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