STATE COLLEGE — State College boys’ volleyball coach Kim-Li Kimel got her first taste of how passionate Parker Thompson is about volleyball, and how much of a perfectionist he is, when he was a freshman.
After a loss in a pool play match during a mid-season junior varsity tournament, Thompson “was a wreck,” according to Kimel.
At the time, she wondered if he would ever make it in the sport, if he was too emotionally invested to play steady.
“Over four years he has learned how to manage it,” Kimel said. “He has taken that raw passion, that raw emotion and balanced it with almost an understanding that it’s who he is.”
Now a senior team co-captain and starting libero for the Little Lions, he has found his balance, channeled his passion and is ready for the next step in the team’s season.
State College (9-6) will meet Norwin (14-1) in the first round of the PIAA Class AAA tournament at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Altoona Field House.
Thompson passion and drive is in part internally driven, but also a product of how he was raised as the son of a pair of Penn State coaches. His father, Jeff Thompson, is the head coach of the women’s gymnastics team with his mom, Rachelle, an assistant coach.
“It’s always motivated me to work hard,” Parker Thompson said. “As cliché as it sounds, you work hard at whatever you do, you put a lot of passion into it, you’ll go far with it. That’s kind of been my motto since I started playing volleyball.”
He gave some thought to following in the big family footsteps, and he has worked at Centre Elite Gymnastics, but volleyball is where his heart lies.
“I’m decent at it, so that makes it fun to do,” said Thompson, who moved into a setter position for a few matches to open the season as the lineup was in flux. “Everything about it is fun. It’s stimulating, it’s invigorating. I like working hard, I like playing defense, I like keeping the ball from hitting the floor, I love diving around the place, keeping the ball off the ground.”
Now that he has channeled that passion, has honed his skills and also sharpened the mind that also comes from being in a house of coaches, he has become a very important member of the Little Lion team, even if he rarely takes a swing and never gets a block.
As the libero, he is a designated back-row defensive player. His job is to get in the way of all the spikes opponents take, pass them back up to the net and transition the ball from defense to offense.
He’s pretty good at his job.
Six times this season he has had at least 20 digs in a match — and that total is just picking up offensive swings from an opponent and does not include service receptions. Twice this season the numbers have been stunning, with 33 digs in a match against Bishop Guilfoyle and 41 earlier this month in a win against Central Dauphin, with both matches over four sets.
“You can have a whole bunch of different defensive systems and blocking systems,” Kimel said. “But at the end of the day you want your best defensive player where most of the balls are hit. We give him quite a bit of leeway of how and why he positions himself on the court.”
Kimel said she even had a talk Monday with her some of her players who also have major rolls in passing and instructed them to watch Thompson as much as they should watch the opposing hitters, and react and adjust to what he does for where they should position themselves.
“He almost uniformly makes the read earlier than everyone else, then can make the adaptation earlier,” Kimel said. “We can tell them they don’t have to read that, they just have to watch Parker.”
Thompson hopes to continue his progression and education in the sport at the next level. He will be roommates with incoming recruit Lee Smith of Ambridge and will attempt to walk on with the Nittany Lion volleyball team. He will go to walk-on tryouts in the fall.
“I have a really addictive personality and that’s always been really good for me just in everything I do,” Thompson said. “You could say I’m addicted to volleyball. I want to go as far as I can with it until I can’t anymore.”
He and the Little Lions will be put to the test against the Knights, who finished with a 12-0 record in their section of the WPIAL and lost to North Allegheny in the District 7 championship match.
“Norwin’s the type of team that will push you from start to finish,” Kimel said. “It’s really going to be a matter of, can we make that adjustment? Can we hang with that team?”