Robert Pierce was rooting for a Sweet Home victory on Tuesday night. He doesn’t want to see them win again, however.
“I’m thrilled for them,” Pierce, the Eden coach, said of Sweet Home and coach Rich Cicero, his former club volleyball and Penn State University teammate. “He’s one of my best friends, a great guy. He’s really worked hard and those kids are responding to him.”
Defending champion Eden will meet resurgent Sweet Home for the overall Division II championship at 6 p.m. Wednesday on the same floor where they won sectional titles in front of a rotating crowd of about 300 people on Tuesday at Lackawanna.
In the Division I final, Lockport, the No. 1 large school in the Western New York coaches poll all season, overcame a slow start to sweep Williamsville North and advance to the Far West Regionals on Saturday at Webster Schroeder in Rochester.
The sixth-seeded Spartans had already upset Clarence and Frontier during sectionals. On Tuesday, they held a 20-13 lead in the opening game before Lockport came back to win 27-25.
“Will North came out swinging,” Lockport coach Elizabeth Smorol said. “They knew they had nothing to lose, they already upset two teams and they came to upset us.”
Lockport settled in to take the second set 25-17 and the deciding game 25-18.
“We really persevered, played as a team and got the win,” said senior setter Marc Bixby, who had 16 assists, eight digs and six kills.
Zachary Schneider led the Lions with 17 kills and 10 digs. Tivon White had seven kills and Jesse Donorovich recorded six kills and five digs. Sean Denniston added 14 assists, six digs and three aces.
After Schneider spiked the final point, Denniston and Smorol hugged each other tight amid the chaotic on-court celebration.
“I’ve been coaching him since he was eight years old,” Smorol said. “Having him here and winning a sectional title with my son meant the world to me.”
“We’re family but really the whole team is family,” Denniston said. “She’s taught me how to play volleyball starting basically when I could walk, so this moment for us was huge.”
Playing in the gym where Sweet Home won its first sectional title 40 years ago, the Panthers clawed back to defeat Grand Island in an intense five-set match to win the Division II-A championship.
“I talked to the boys before the game and told them that history repeats itself,” said Cicero, who won sectional titles as a Sweet Home player in 1982-83 and in his 18th season as coach. “We put a lot of hard work in this season and they had to go out there and take it. Nothing in this world is ever given to you.”
Each of the Sweet Home players dyed his hair golden blonde before the start of sectionals and they now have golden plaque to add to their trophy case for the first time since 1993.
“I can’t even get it through my head yet that we are champions,” senior captain Evan Bezak said.
“Freaking fantastic,” added Jonathan Miller, one of Sweet Home’s other senior captains, along with Dominic Genau and Dylan Aarum. “It feels like a dream come true.”
Sweet Home endured an 0-20 season two years ago while this group honed its game on the junior varsity squad. The Panthers reached the II-A final last year before losing to Hamburg and made another leap this season.
Sweet Home came from behind to win the first set 27-25 and Grand Island won the second by an identical score. The Vikings took the lead in the match with a 25-22 win in the third game and the Panthers evened it with a 25-20 win in the fourth.
The deciding set was the only one in which either team led by more than five points and Sweet Home clinched the championship on Aarum’s over-the-shoulder flip shot that won the game 15-7.
Alexander Stoj and Kaleb Luton each had eight kills to lead Sweet Home and Nathan Davis rose up for most of his seven kills in the deciding games. Solomon Shabazz had five blocks.
Eden won its second straight B-II title and 31st sectional championship with sound serving and pinpoint passing.
“We passed and we served, that’s the most important thing,” said Drew Hesse, who had 15 kills and nine aces.
The Raiders broke open a close first set with a 13-2 run to win 25-13 and took the second and third sets by the same score, 25-20.
“We’ve been working for this all year and what a way to get it,” said Collin Rigley, who had 14 kills. “Everyone is clicking on all cylinders and we got contributions from everyone. We’ve worked so hard as a team this year and that’s how we wanted to win this one.”