STATE COLLEGE — The State College girls’ volleyball team was a mere two points from defeat, but didn’t worry.
Instead the players found out a little more about themselves.
The Lady Little Lions rattled off the final five points of the match to finish off their toughest contest of the season with a five-set victory over Cumberland Valley on Thursday night in the North Gym.
“We had to dig really deep,” junior outside hitter Christine Irwin said after the 21-25, 26-24, 25-22, 21-25, 15-13 win. “We knew we could fight through. We’ve been in those situations so many times and we fought really hard.”
After knocking off their previous Mid-Penn Conference foes in easier fashion, the Lady Little Lions (9-0), who are ranked No. 8 in the state by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association, were taken to the limit Thursday.
“We came in prepared for a better team, but when they came out strong it still kind of took us aback,” senior setter Suzanne Horner said. “But we prepared all week and we were excited for it. We had lots of energy and we didn’t want to lose.”
Horner finished with 15 kills and 13 assists while her sister Jackie had 15 assists and Irwin posted match-highs of 17 kills and nine digs to go with a pair of aces. Kyla Irwin paced the defense with five blocks.
Elizabeth Scott’s 14 kills and two aces and Kelly Friers’ 11 kills and three blocks led the Lady Eagles (8-1), who led by as much as 12-8 and later at 13-10 of the fifth set.
Then Christine Irwin blasted a cross-court kill, and two straight Cumberland Valley errors suddenly had the match knotted at 13. Irwin then slipped in an ace, and after a time out took the final swing of the night with a back-row set from Jackie Horner, ripping the ball through the Eagle defense.
“That was amazing,” Irwin said of the final swing. “I was so happy.”
The Lady Little Lions also had to shake off a fourth set in which they were just six points from wrapping up the match with a 19-18 lead before Cumberland Valley closed with seven of the last nine points.
“We were frustrated for maybe a second,” Horner said. “But then we said, “Hey, we have this. Let’s go out strong in this next set.’”
Playing a five-set match will undoubtedly be invaluable for both sides.
“Nobody likes five-game matches, but it’s the best character-building you can have for a team,” Lady Eagles coach Jackie Orner said. “If you want to advance further in the postseason, you need to know who’s made of what and can get the job done when they need to.”
Having to fight back from dropping the first set, then recovering from falling in the fourth and the late deficit in the fifth certainly told State College coach Chad Weight a lot about his team.
“They have a lot of reserve,” Weight said. “They don’t get down whether they’re down or not. If they lose a game, if they’re down five, six, seven, eight points, they have a lot of reserve and that’s something you can’t teach.”
“We were like, ‘Hey guys, we want this. We want this more than they do,’” Suzanne Horner said. “We grunted it out. Everybody stood behind each other and made it work.”
The match is part of a tough stretch for State College, which follows with its Invitational tournament on Saturday and then a rematch at Cumberland Valley next Wednesday. The 20-team invitational will feature nine programs ranked among the top 10 in the state across three classes.
“It’s a tough week,” Horner said. “It’s a tough schedule but we’re excited for it.”
Still, they were happy to get this kind of test — and prevailed.
“We knew they were hard competition and a really good team, so we had to pick up our level of play and limit our errors,” Christine Irwin said. “We did just that. Even at our low points we really pushed and we knew what we had in us and we came through.”
Gordon Brunskill can be reached at 231-4608.