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Mounties stage improbable rally to reach state final

COAL TOWNSHIP — Finally, a team was going to take a set off of North Penn-Liberty in the state playoffs. After a pair three-set sweeps to start the tournament and a first-set win to start Tuesday’s state semifinals, Trinity had finally made North Penn-Liberty face a set point. Three, to be exact.

The Shamrock crowd rose their feet, as their team stormed back from a seven-point deficit to take a three-point lead. The thing that rose next was the Mounties’ level of play.

North-Penn Libety fought off those set points and rallied for a second-set win of its own at Shamokin High School. It catapulted the Mounties into the state final with a 3-0 win (25-21, 26-24, 25-18) over Trinity in the PIAA Class AA semifinals Tuesday.

The Mounties advance to face District 7’s North Catholic on Saturday at 1 p.m. for the state championship at Cumberland Valley High School.

North Penn-Liberty began the rally when Lizzie Welch (seven blocks) rejected a player nearly a foot taller than her in 6-foot-3 Lauren Trumpy. Next, NPL forced a Trinity hitting error, and Maddison Minyo (12 kills, 13 Digs, four aces) had a thunderous kill down the line to tie things up at 24-24.

And after another Welch block gave NPL a set point, it was time for the Mountie faithful to rise to their feet. When a Trinity attack found the tape of the net, the Mounties went wild. The five-point run — when they could’ve let a set slip through their fingers — personified the defining quality of these state finalists. Trinity was taller, deeper and jumped higher. North Penn-Liberty was mentally tougher. 

“I knew if we could just win that next point (at 21-24) we could feed off of it and get back in the set. When these girls get rolling they feed off that energy and get going,” first-year North Penn-Liberty coach Jennifer Nawri said.

No player embodies that energy more than senior outside hitter Minyo. She has been nearly unstoppable down the stretch and is the emotional leader of the Mounties. She was spectacular Tuesday night at the Purple Palace. Frequently she and the Mounties’ other outside hitter, Charisma Grega, punished the Shamrocks down the line. 

“We saw on film that they leave that open and I reminded them before the match and kept telling them during the match to keep going down line until their libero moved away from crosscourt,” Nawri said.

The down-line hits were there all night for Grega (12 kills, 17 digs, 15/16 on serve receive) and Minyo. 

“They have a great libero and we knew should be crosscourt and that their block struggled to cover the pin so we hit it there all night,” Minyo said. 

“We saw on film they were not going to cover it and they didn’t and we kept going there. We knew they had those spots,” said Grega, who is closing in on 750 kills and 750 digs as a junior. 

Grega and Minyo led the offensive attack, but the player many will remember from the biggest win in North Penn-Liberty history will be Mountie libero Ali Koval. The junior, who replaced graduated NTL defensive player of the year Savannah Doney, has been fantastic all season, but especially in the state tournament.

She played her best match of the season in the state quarterfinals against Panther Valley on Saturday.

Until last night.

Time after time, the Shamrocks took aim at the diminutive Koval. Time after time she produced perfect pass after perfect pass. She finished with 31 digs and 21 serve receptions and committed only two errors.

When asked if she felt she was elevating her level in these playoffs, Koval answered with a succinct “Yeah, I’d say so.” 

“I just love playing great competition and it fuels me to do my best because it’s even more important for me to do my job,” Koval said.

“She was everywhere, wasn’t she?” Nawri said. “She’s been awesome, just phenomenal.” 

The first set looked as if it would be a Liberty blowout, but the Shamrocks fought back from 11-6 and 20-14 deficits to trail by only one at 22-21. The next point would be the point of the match and would end in an unlikely hero ending it. After a rally that seemed to go on and on with both teams making spectacular digs, senior opposite hitter Hannah Bowens sent an overpass to the floor and the Mounties went on to win the next two points to close out the set, 25-21.

“It gets the girls so pumped up when a girl who maybe doesn’t get as many opportunities gets one and takes advantage of it,” Nawri said. 

After the Mounties came back to win that classic second set, the state final was in their sights against a visibly deflated Shamrocks team. By the time it was 12-5, Trinity was out of timeouts and it was a foregone conclusion that North Penn-Liberty would emerge as eastern region’s top team.

A last gasp effort by Trinity got it to 23-17, but that’s as close as they would get. Fittingly, the Mounties’ senior leader Minyo ended the match with one last kill. NPL’s players leapt high in the air and the bench rushed onto the court. What seemed unattainable even a week ago had now been conquered. North Penn-Liberty is heading to the state final.

“I can’t believe it,” Minyo said. “I couldn’t have dreamt this. I never thought this was a possibility. We just wanted to beat (state first-round opponent and the team that eliminated the Mounties the last three years) Holy Redeemer. I can’t even sleep at night. I try to and I start thinking about volleyball and I get all excited.”

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