Getting to the state tournament is not a new thing for the State College boys’ volleyball team.
The Little Lions have won five straight District 6 titles and have been the district’s dominant Class AAA team for more than a decade.
Advancing to the PIAA first round with seven losses in the regular season — that is new.
But this State College team (10-7) has traveled a different road than those teams of the past — in more ways than one — and are on a different one yet again in facing Bethel Park at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Bishop Carroll High School in Ebensburg.
Among those differences was changing to a new league when State College joined the Mid-Penn Conference in all sports and an ever-changing lineup including switching setters.
Aside from one season a decade ago in which the program was forced to forfeit a number of games late in the season for using ineligible players, giving them losses on paper when they weren’t lost on the court, no Little Lion team has been even close to .500 entering the PIAA tournament under coach Kim-Li Kimel.
“We’re worried about the next match,” Kimel said. “We’re not worried about the win-loss record, we’re not worried about what big team we might see, we’re not worried about a tournament, because there’s only one match to think about, and that’s a luxury.”
There were a number of reasons for the high loss count, including joining he Mid-Penn, which features several of the state’s top teams. Four of the past five Class AAA state champions are current Mid-Penn teams, and none have repeated as champion. Nearly every week it seemed there was one of the state’s top-10 teams on the other side of the net.
“It’s been a good thing for us, but it’s also been a challenge,” Kimel said. “We see every week a really tough team and a really competitive program.”
While the Little Lions may have beefed up their strength of schedule, they lost the extra psychological boost young men could get from rolling up the wins.
It was definitely something Little Lion teams had in the past.
“They were really confident teams,” said Kimel, whose program won the state title three seasons ago. “They were moving though their season handling teams pretty readily, and that wasn’t necessarily somthing to take lightly — getting wins to build confidence. That was a challenge this year, being put in tough situations week to week ... and your confidence can take a hit.”
This State College team also has been one in transition nearly all season.
The Little Lions began the season with Kyle Shafer as the starting setter, with J.R. Koch the backup and Andrew Groves as a newcomer as a right-side hitter. Now, Groves is the starting setter, and there have been a number of injuries and other lineup alterations along the way.
Kimel noted that in seasons past, the lineup has been set and stayed in place for most of the season, and sometimes an injury would really disrupt everything.
“That is one thing — necessity is the mother of invention,” Kimel said. “One thing that is really great about these guys, I can come in on any given day, mess around with the lineup or the rotation, how they start, and they’re so used to being flexible and having to adapt that they don’t balk at that.”
Lately, everyone has been getting comfortable for the Little Lions.
“The last three weeks, every contact we’re getting better,” Kimel said. “We’re peaking when we need to be peaking. That’s a tough thing to do in any league, any sport.”
Get updates on Wednesday’s match on Twitter @GordonCDT.