The kids at Plum knew how to play volleyball, and Ellen surely was able to fine tune abilities, but was she ready to start her own program at Leechburg? I know she was excited by the athleticism available at there. Leechburg was widely known as a powerhouse in softball, and while it was a MUCH smaller school than Plum, there was no shortage of female athletes.
Ellen was also very excited to be coaching in the district where she taught. Much can be said of having everyday contact with your players. This wasn't always the case with Plum, even though we had become quite close to the kids there. At Leechburg there would be a chance to not only impact these girls on the practice court, but in the classroom as well.
Of course, the first two years were painful, but there was progress being made. The skill-set for volleyball had not been taught in Leechburg, but with Ellen teaching Phys Ed there she had time to identify potential, and work at it in gym class. This helped to accelerate the process, but there was much work to do.
The good news was the athletic nature of the girls in this small town, the bad news was because there were so few students, the really involved ones were doing so many different things, being pulled in so many directions. It wasn't uncommon to have a kid leave practice early, to attend cheerleading, chorus, or band practice, and because the softball team was so competitive, many of the girls played for club teams in the spring and fall. It took a great deal of cooperation coach to coach/instructor and most often volleyball was the loser.
The other thing I remember from those first few years at Leechburg is that because we had some really great athletes, we could play a few close games with really good teams. Then the feeling would come over the team like "what are we doing here?" I used to refer to it as "poor little Leechburg syndrome", and I hated it.
It didn't help that our section was the best single A section in the WPIAL. Rivalries formed with perennial State contender Elderton, Shannock Valley, and Ford City. They say to be the best you have to beat the best. Leechburg would get chances to do that in Section 1A. It took a while, but finally Leechburg started to contend for a playoff spot!
Ellen started at Leechburg in 1993 and it took ten years to finally make the playoffs. In 2003, the Blue Devils took third in the section and met top seeded Geibel at home in the first round. None of the kids on that court had ever played a big match in front of so many people. I remember starting fast but fading. It hardly mattered, because after 10 years of convincing these kids, they were finally starting to feel less like athletes playing volleyball and more like volleyball athletes. Such an important improvement!
The off season was a little more active, more kids showing up at open gyms, more talk of beating section rivals and finally putting a number on that big empty volleyball banner. 2004 returned some good athletes with valuable big game experience. We took second in our section(again to Elderton) and advanced for a second straight year to the playoffs. This time, with a more favorable match up in the first round, again at Geibel vs. Frazier, the Blue Devils won their very first playoff match and advanced to the quarter finals against Hopewell.
Hopewell was led by future Olympian and silver medalist Christa Harmotto(remember that name, you'll hear it again). They were powerful, and polished, but these were not the "poor little Leechburg" teams of the past. Winning a playoff match had the Devils confident. They split the first two games, and played a tight game three into extra points. Hopewell proved to be too much that night, but another big step forward was taken. Hopewell eventually won a state championship that year, but the kids from Leechburg were starting to believe.
Again the momentum rolled into the off season, and not only were the open gyms well attended, they were spirited and productive. Volleyball was no longer something to do while waiting for softball to start. These kids WANTED it. 2005 was going to be a fun season!
Playing such a close match with the eventual champion was a real boost, and has the Lady Devils setting their goals higher. Section play consisted of everyone playing everyone else twice, once at home and once away.
This year, Leechburg matched up with Elderton late in the schedule, last in fact. In the early part of the season both teams were undefeated coming into the first meeting at Elderton. It was an instant classic, with Leechburg coming in confident, and stealing the first two games, just needed to take one more to close them out. It was like someone flipped a switch, and the Elderton Bobcats came back to life. They took the next two, setting up a fifth game winner take all. It was Leechburg's night. They took game five and held a firm grip on the section lead.
None of these kids had ever been in this situation in volleyball. The second half was harder, and the Blue Devils ran into a rough patch. They lost surprisingly to newcomer Trinity Christian and dropped a tough match to third place Greensburg Central Catholic. The firm grip had slipped, and now Elderton again had the advantage going into the last match of the season, at Leechburg.
It was the biggest match ever played at the LHS gymnasium. It seemed every kid in the district was there, and they were well aware of what was at stake. They were loud! I remember thinking finally after twelve years, this is just like Plum! Elderton was definitely rattled by the atmosphere, and Leechburg ran them over in the first set. After another fast start by the Devils, the Bobcats rallied back and won game two. Game three went to Leechburg and game four to, you guessed it, Elderton...
a point here, a side out there, it was GREAT VOLLEYBALL, and it was being played at Leechburg!
We had come all this way, twelve years, and it would come down to a 15 point fifth game for a chance at that elusive section championship.
It was a awesome fifth game, again teams trading points, earning huge side outs, playing ridiculous defense, it was beautiful, but it wasn't Leechburg's time, and despite a herculean effort the Lady Devils came up short.
I wanted to get some of the emotion from one of the key players in that game, so I ask Margaret "Maggie" Jones(remember that name, you'll hear it again) to fill me in. Here is what she had to say...
"I will tell you this, about losing the Section Championship to Elderton, it was the toughest loss I ever had in sports. We wanted to win that so badly for Ellen. We went into the locker room after the loss and I remember her telling us how proud she was and that even though we didn't put a number on the banner, she was still proud. I interrupted her, crying, I said we didn't care about the banner, we wanted to give you a section championship, which she truly deserved. After that she took us back out to the gym, had us climb up the bleachers to where it said DEVILS and told us to remember this moment, that we are Blue Devils and we gave so much to the program and to be proud. It was so emotional. The game itself was just crazy, so many students came. I remember all of Ellen's family being there and we could win it for her, get her that championship. To this day I cringe when I see the volleyball banner at Leechburg. It's not right because no one will ever know the program she built, single handily, by looking at that banner. 14 years! But ask anyone of her players and they will all tell you the same thing. We know numbers on that banner aren't what matter. She was the best coach any one of us could play for and she quite literally was Leechburg Volleyball, she brought the program to life. That legacy will never fade despite the numberless banner."
Ellen rallied the girls after that crushing defeat, winning the first round against Avonworth, but bowing out at Gateway to North Catholic. The season should have felt more successful, but the specter of the loss to Elderton stayed. Some defeats hang around longer than others. Even writing about that one still stings to this day.
During the last four years of Ellen's time at Leechburg, coaching vacancies at her Alma Mater across the river kept beckoning. Kiski had a revolving door and their program had fallen on hard times. It was difficult to see, but it really made no sense to make that change, with the progress being made at Leechburg. Ellen coached 2006 in Leechburg, going once again to the playoffs, and in 2007, the draw of coaching at her old school became overpowering.
Ellen submitted her application to coach at Kiski. The board met and she was hired. Athletic Director Ryan Berberich would utter the theme that was to be our mantra for her first season. It was powerful and eerily
...It's About to Get Serious.