By DENNY DYROFF
For 21st Century Media
LONDON GROVE -- Avon Grove's volleyball team finished in fourth place in the Ches-Mont League's National Division. Now, the Red Devils are one win away from being one of the top four teams in District 1.
On Thursday evening, seventh-seeded Avon Grove secured a berth in the quarterfinals of the District 1 Class AAA tournament when it swept 10th-seeded Unionville 25-18, 25-18, 25-14 in a round-of-16 match on its own court.
With Thursday's results, the Ches-Mont's National Division is assured of at least one team in the semifinals and that means at least one team will advance to this year's PIAA Class AAA tournament.
Competing in the bottom half of the district bracket, Avon Grove will have a rematch with National Division champion Downingtown East on October 29 at the Cougars' gym in Lionville. Downingtown East, the National Division winner, swept 18th-seeded Central Bucks East 3-0.
In the other half of the bottom bracket, third-seeded Bishop Shanahan will host sixth-seeded Garnet Valley. On Thursday, Shanahan swept 14th-seeded Penncrest and Garnet Valley posted a 3-1 win over 11th-seeded Pennsbury.
When the Unionville-Avon Grove match got underway, the Red Devils streaked out to a quick 8-2 advantage. Unionville worked hard to get back into it and closed the gap to two points at 9-7 and then a single point at 13-12. The Red Devils were unable to open a gap of more than three until a pair of kills by Julia Crabtree pushed the hosts' lead to 17-13 and 18-14.
The teams traded points and then AG's Jacklyn Rind came through with back-to-back serves that the Indians were unable to return. The Red Devils controlled the rest of the match and sealed the 25-18 victory with an ace by Eleanor Schutlz.
The second set was a much closer contest -- until it came to the closing stretch. The score was knotted at 10-10 and was tied 10 times along the way. The Indians went ahead 12-10 on an AG defensive error and a kill by Becky Baptiste.
Avon Grove regained the lead at 13-12 and then faced deadlocks at 13-13 and 14-14. The next phase of the second set was dominated by strong serving by the Red Devils. Allison Raff came through with a four-point, one-ace service run to put her team up 18-14.
The scrappy Indians refused to fold. Instead, they played aggressively and moved back to within one point at 19-18. A hitting error by Unionville gave the serve back to the host team. Heather Brown took over and served the game's final five points -- a run that featured a tip by Elizabeth Neils, a kill by Sarah McCann and ended with an ace.
"This was one of my better serving nights,' said Brown, a junior. "I just served to the corners. I tried to go deep to get them out of rotation. We felt pretty good after the second set. In the third set, we came out with more confidence -- and we played smart.'
Unionville coach Rob Conti-D'Antonio said, "I think if we would have won that second set, we'd be O.K. The first time we played them, we went five with them.
"This time, we were without one of our top players. Our outside hitter Maddie Malone was out with a muscle sprain. She was our best passer and she led the team in digs. You could tell they were picking on her replacement.
"We needed to establish our offense and we couldn't do it because our passing was inconsistent. And, we didn't establish anything defensively. We made way too many errors.'
Avon Grove played its best volleyball in the third set. The Red Devils stayed aggressive at the net and served well. They came through with solid defense and played virtually error-free.
The home team opened a 6-1 lead that quickly evolved into a 13-4 advantage and then an 11-point bulge at 19-8. After that, the teams traded points six times until the match ended with a Unionville hitting error.
"We beat Unionville, 3-2, during the regular season and we've grown a lot since then,' said AG senior Allison Raff. "I think we really played together well tonight. We've gotten to be more of a team and we definitely have something to prove in the district playoffs.'
Their next opportunity to prove something will come Tuesday against Downingtown East. When the teams met at the beginning of the season, each team gave the other all it could handle. Eventually, the host Cougars emerged with a 3-2 victory in a match that went five extra points in the fifth game of the best-of-five competition.
East dropped the first set in overtime 26-28 and then drew even with a 25-20 win in the second set. The Red Devils regained the advantage with a 25-19 victory in set three and then the Cougars roared back with a 25-13 win in the fourth set to force a 15-point fifth set. East then eked out the match victory with a nail-biting 20-18 win in the final set.
The match against Unionville Thursday wasn't nearly as exciting -- but it had a better result for the Red Devils.
"I'm always 100 per cent sure that he (Conti-D'Antonio) was coming here prepared to win,' said Avon Grove coach Marouane Jafir. "My instruction to our girls was to serve very effectively to take out their middle.
"My girls played with their heads -- and they served well. Eleanor (Schultz) played one of her best matches of the season. Our hitting and blocking was consistent and our coverage was very good.'
With the win, Avon Grove improved to 14-4. The Red Devils' four losses were to Downingtown East, Bishop Shanahan, West Chester Henderson and perennial Delaware powerhouse Padua Academy.
Unionville's season drew to a close with the loss Thursday night. The Indians, who were the Ches-Mont League American Division champions, finished with a 9-9 record.
"We had too many injuries all year,' said Conti-D'Antonio. "We could never get a consistent line-up. We had a brand new line-up tonight. You can't go into the district playoffs with a new line-up and expect to beat at team like Avon Grove. They're very well-coached. They had a game plan and they executed it.'
Three other Ches-Mont teams picked up wins Thursday in the top bracket.
Fifth-seeded West Chester Henderson logged a 3-1 win over 12th-seeded William Tennent. Sun Valley, the 13th seed, upset fourth-seeded Strath Haven 3-2 and eighth-seeded Spring-Ford knocked off ninth-seeded Mount Saint Joseph Academy 3-2. In the other upper-bracket match top-seeded Upper Merion was a 3-1 winner over 16th-seed Hatboro-Horsham. On Tuesday, Upper Merion will play Spring-Ford and Sun Valley will face Henderson.
In case you've lost count, six of the eight 2013 District 1 Class AAA quarterfinalists are teams from the Ches-Mont League.