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Photo: Christopher Dolan, License: N/A, Created: 2018:05:22 17:59:17

CHRISTOPHER DOLAN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Abington Heights’ Matt Pacyna dives for the ball during a district volleyball semifinal match against Berwick at Holy Redeemer High School in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday, May 22.

Photo: Christopher Dolan, License: N/A, Created: 2018:05:22 17:16:45

CHRISTOPHER DOLAN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Abington Heights’ Evan Florey sends the ball during a district volleyball semifinal match against Berwick at Holy Redeemer High School in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday, May 22.

Evan Florey believed in the Abington Heights Comets.

As early as the first practice in March, he had a good feeling about this year’s version of the boys volleyball team. The players bonded quickly, and a built a tight chemistry while building momentum.

Despite having to replace several key starters, the upstart Comets played with confidence and rolled to a third Lackawanna League championship in the last four seasons.

But, Abington Heights continued to soar, got past a traditional roadblock in the postseason and reached the PIAA playoffs.

They had a season to remember.

“I think it really started with the key players we had back,” said Florey, who was a second-team Lackawanna League all-star in 2017. “We all joined the team at approximately the same time. We learned from the leaders who influenced us from previous teams.

“This group was really dedicated and we fought hard. We were always having fun out there.”

When James Spangler took over as coach six years ago, his goals were to build the program into a yearly contender for the league championship and a team capable of having an impact in the District 2 Class 2A tournament.

Each season, the Comets took a step in the process, first winning a league title, then having an undefeated regular season. A year after finishing second in the Lackawanna League, Abington Heights, which graduated three players who earned all-star honors, was poised to validate its role as preseason co-favorite with defending champion Blue Ridge.

With Florey leading the way, Abington Heights stormed to a fast start. The Comets won their first five matches by 3-0 scores, which included the first-half showdown with Blue Ridge. Then, they withstood a challenge from Mountain View, winning 3-2.

“After we made it through the first half of the schedule and beat Blue Ridge and Mountain View, we started to think we had a chance to have a special season,” Abington Heights senior Trevor Gabura said.

In the second half of the season, Abington Heights suffered its first loss of the season, a 3-2 battle against Forest City. The Comets also had a tough rematch against Blue Ridge and won 3-1 before finishing with a 3-1 win over Mountain View that completed an 11-1 season and wrapped up the league championship.

“After that Forest City match we needed to regain some confidence,” Florey said. “We were still a game or two ahead in the standings and we were focused on our defense and being active defensively.”

That title earned the Comets the No. 2 seed for the District 2 Class 2A tournament, a playoff where they were knocked out in the semifinals and lost to Berwick in the third-place match preventing a trip to the state tournament last spring.

In this year’s first-round doubleheader, hosted by Abington Heights, the team avenged a loss to North Pocono with a dominant win, 3-0 (25-14, 25-17, 25-17).

That catapulted the Comets into the semifinals. Berwick earned a second win in as many seasons against Abington Heights in the playoffs, 3-2 (25-21, 20-25, 20-25, 25-15, 15-11).

But this group had come too far to not reach its goal.

In a third meeting with Lackawanna League rival Blue Ridge, the Comets fought for a 3-1 (25-23, 25-21, 9-25, 25-19) win to punch a ticket for the state tournament, the program’s first since the 2011 season.

Northeastern, the five-time PIAA Class 2A champion, awaited the Comets. After a long travel to West York High School, and a slow start, Abington Heights played and executed much better in the second and third sets in a 3-0 (25-5, 25-18, 25-14) loss.

“Going into that match we knew that Northeastern was a great team and the skill level was definitely high,” Gabura said. “In the first set we made a lot of mistakes and we weren’t really comfortable. After we got our legs and settled in, we showed what we could do and played much better.”

Abington Heights finished at 13-3.

“In the first couple of years of the program the goal was to keep building and it was important to keep improving,” Spangler said. “I think this season’s success will have an influence on our young players in the program, and even those younger kids not in high school to buy in and keep things going in volleyball.”

Florey led the team in kills with 197, while James McGrail added 158. James Kazmierski had 79 kills, Sandon Birch contributed 71 and Matt Pacyna had 61 for a team that averaged 10.77 kills per set.

They were the heavy hitters. But, the team received a lot of support across the roster.

Matt Molnar, Will Brown, Freddie Hickman and Kyle Kronick combined for 81 kills and 55 blocks. Chance VanSickle had 13 digs.

Pacyna emerged as the catalyst of the offense with 457 assists. Birch contributed 126.

Gabura fueled the defense with 241 digs and Florey had 152.

“It was a great run,” Gabura, 18, said. “It was good to finish the season doing something that was really special for the program.”