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FROM THE PRESS BOX: ATHENS VOLLEYBALL SHINING LIGHT OF VALLEY FOR FALL SEASON (2020-11-04)

I’ll be the first to admit, when the fall season began I didn’t expect the Athens volleyball team to be the last team standing, but here they are, and what a ride it’s been.

The Lady Wildcats ended a solid regular season with a 10-6 record. Their losses were all quality losses, with all six coming to playoff teams. Two to powerhouse NP-Liberty (Class AA top seed), two to NEB (Class A second seed), one to Wellsboro (Class AA second seed), and one to Canton (Class A top seed) — the top two seeds in Class AA and Class A.

With just two Class AAA in District 4, Athens and Shamokin were dispatched to District 2 to play in a sub-regional for their chance for a trip to States.

The Lady Wildcats were awarded the seventh-seed and a trip to Greater Nanticoke to face the second seed. They won the first two sets, lost the next two, and pulled out a win in the fifth set to advance to the semifinals.

The Greater Nanticoke match was so intense, several Athens players burst into tears after the match.

In the semifinals, Athens breezed to a sweep of Tunkhannock to advance to a District 2-4 championship match against unbeaten and top-seeded Berwick Thursday night. It’s the programs first trip to a District title match since 2005.

You can look to the top if you’re searching for a reason for the Athens program’s return to relevance.

Heather Hanson took over a program that had floundered for a decade under a variety of coaches. In her first year, she took the Lady Wildcats to district playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. In her second season, Athens won its first postseason match since 2006, and this year the Lady Wildcats advanced to their first title match since 2005.

Hanson’s secret: she knows the game, can relay that knowledge to her players, and her players will run through a wall for her, which is really a big key for any successful coach.

Of course, you also have to talent to be successful, and the Lady Wildcats are talented. As my father use to say, “can’t win if don’t have the horses.”

It starts with seniors Taylor Field and Kayleigh Miller. Field is an excellent libero, and probably the best defensive player in the NTL. Miller is a sure-handed setter, who directs the offense seamlessly, whether its passing to the middle or to the outside.

Speaking of hitters, Athens has a pair of dynamic middle hitters in seniors Kylie Jayne and Leah Liechty. Jayne is probably the most improved player in the NTL, while Liecthy can really get off her feet and has elevated her game.

Juniors Taylor Walker and Ally Martin have peaked and are playing their best volleyball as outside hitters in the postseason, and senior Grayce Witherow has give the Lady Wildcats some quality play off the bench.

Sophomore Jenny Ryan is also a key cog for the Lady Wildcats. She is a player who can do it all, whether it’s setting, playing defense, or hitting.

Athens faces a big obstacle in a sophomore-laden Berwick team, which lost in the District 2 finals last year, Thursday night, but win or lose it’s been a season to remember for Hanson and her team.

Hanson inherited a talented group three years ago, and has cultivated them. She will face her biggest test next year after the loss of seven seniors. Considering the JV struggles this year, she will have her work cut out for her.

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The Athens football season came to a crashing halt Saturday with a 43-0 loss to Danville.

The Wildcats are young and played a much weaker schedule than they usually play, and I believe both those factors worked against them in the loss to the Ironmen.

The future is bright for the program with Mason Lister at QB for two more years, running backs Shayne Reid and Caleb NIchols, and wideouts Karter Rude and J.J. Babcock. There are a slew of other underclassmen who contributed this year returning as well, including Chris Bathgate, Troy Jennings, freshman Jason Dunn, Troy Pritchard, and Tucker Brown.

There is one big caveat in Athens’ dreams of glory over the next couple years, and that’s on the offensive line, where four seniors graduate. Zac Gowin returns up front, along with Tom Forrest and freshman Josh Nittinger, who both saw time in the trenches, but there is plenty of work to be done.

If longtime coach Jack Young and his staff can re-build its line, the Wildcats will make a run at a division title, and will be much more competitive in the postseason.

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The two-time defending District 4 champion Lady Wildcats saw their quest for a three-peat end Saturday at home in an exciting 3-2 loss to Mifflinburg.

Other than a 9-4 blowout win over NEB early in the season, it was the first time this season Athens had given up three goals in a game.

And, you can’t really blame the Athens defense, Mifflinburg’s first two goals were off tremendous plays.

Athens only loses a few seniors, but among them are four-year starters Emma Roe, who is headed to Division 1 Wagner to continue her playing days, and Hannah Blackman.

Roe is a dynamo, a whirling dervish of non-stop action, with a strong leg and a high soccer IQ. Blackman shares that high soccer IQ, and is a versatile player, who can play both ends of the field.

In Roe they lose their only proven scorer. In Blackman they lose their field general.

There is plenty of room for optimism, however, following a season that featured a ton of playing time for five freshmen and several sophomores.

Hannah Walker returns for her senior season, and regardless of where she plays she will be a leader on the field. Likewise, junior-to-be Ally Thoman returns and will likely pick up some of the scoring slack.

Coach Rich Pitts is a proven winner. I think the Lady Wildcats will be in the hunt to regain their perch atop the NTL standings, and could make some noise in the postseason as well.

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The Athens boys also saw their season end Saturday afternoon with a 1-0 loss at home to Jersey Shore — one game shy of their fifth consecutive trip to the District 4 finals.

For Jersey Shore, it was a bit of redemption as the Wildcats had eliminated them in each of the last three years in the Class AAA semifinals.

As they had much of the season, Athens struggled to find the back of the net, but their defense was excellent.

The Wildcats were young up front and that likely contributed to their scoring woes. On the flip side, the Wildcats were an experienced bunch on defense with seniors Tyler Chambers, Landon Lantz, Travis Reynard, and James Benninger-Jones in front of senior keeper Asher Ellis. Benny Gambrell, who was injured midway through the season is also graduating from the back line.

Jake Lezak has built a tremendous program. His numbers are always good, so he’ll have plenty of options in rebuilding the defense. He will also return Nate Quinn, Jared Ammerman, Daniel Horton, Jason Gao, and Ryan Thompson and others up front and in the middle, so he has less work to do there.

Freshmen Korey Miller, Ryan LaSousa, and Mitch Hamilton should see more playing time next year, and be major contributors.

The Wildcats will also be in need of a keeper. Junior-to-be Grant Liechty, who missed the entire season due to an injury, is likely to be the main candidate to replace Ellis next season.

One thing is certain, Lezak already has a plan under motion for the 2021 season. I expect they will be just fine, and not only contend for an NTL title, but a return to the District 4 title game.

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And let’s not forget, the Athens cross country teams.

PIAA trimmed the state field due to concern surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, and it cost the Athens boys team big time.

Under past qualifying rules, the Wildcat boys would have sent three runners to States. With the qualifying numbers cut from the runners from the top two teams, and the top 10 individual placers, to one team and five runners, seniors Connor Dahl and Kyle Anthony, and junior Matt Gorsline were denied a run at States due to the new rules.

It really is a shame.

On the girls side, sophomore Emma Bronson capped a strong season with a 20th-place finish at the Class AA championships. Her time was 30 seconds faster than the NTL Invitational. She has a bright future.

While the boys team graduates some key runners, the Lady Wildcats will get a few quality runners from the junior high team and could be a team to watch in 2021.

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