ALTOONA — Finally, the ball hit the floor and the State College boys’ volleyball team could breathe.
On his last swing of the night, Deniz Demirci ripped a spike off a pair of Norwin blockers and ended a long night of volleyball.
“It was pretty crazy,” Demirci said of the last of his 15 kills. “I just kind of went up and swung as hard as I could. It worked out.”
For a brief moment they had to be sure the ball fell on the other side of the net — then the Little Lions could erupt in celebration.
“My heartbeat kind of stopped once it rolled down,” Demirci said. “I was like, ‘Is that on our side?’ Thankfully it wasn’t.”
The Little Lions saw a 2-0 lead in sets disappear before holding on to beat Norwin in five long, tough sets in the PIAA Class AAA first round Wednesday night at the Altoona Fieldhouse.
State College will ride the thrill of the 26-24, 25-21, 21-25, 21-25, 16-14 win into the quarterfinals Saturday against North Allegheny, which swept past Fox Chapel in its opener. The site and time for the quarterfinal match likely will be announced Thursday.
The Little Lions (10-6), who have won eight of their last nine, got 15 kills, 25 assists, 17 digs and four blocks from Andrew Groves and 13 kills and four blocks from Clark Handel. Parker Thompson picked up 40 digs, Demirci added 18 digs and Noah Christie handed out 30 assists.
Kevin Sabelski pounded down a match-high 24 kills for the Knights (14-2), Aaron Shaffer added 17 kils, Jay Gurschecky had 10 blocks and nine kills and Nick Nguyen had 51 assists and seven blocks.
After seeing the match knotted at two sets apiece, the Little Lions regrouped just in time, shaking off the Norwin comeback.
“I was thinking, ‘I can’t lose this game. It’s my senior year and I can’t go out like this,’ ” Demirci said. “I had to put everything into everything, and I told the other guys that too.”
“I tried to remind them, ‘When you’re up like that, you can’t play not to lose the match, you’ve got to play to win it, you have to play to finish it,’ ” coach Kim-Li Kimel said. “That means you have to remain aggressive.”
State College settled quickly, jumping to a 4-1 lead, but again Norwin rallied to tie it at 7-7, and the teams traded points all the way to 14-14. Kimel called a timeout with her team down 11-10 to again remind the players to forget about the lost lead.
She instructed them: “I know it’s going to be hard, but you have to let the scoreboard go. Make sure at the end of the game, whether we win it or lose it, make sure you can look each other and the other team in the eye and be good with your effort.”
Groves gave the Little Lions their first match point with a kill at 14-13, but a Shaffer kill tied it again. Then Peyton Stark bounced a swing off a blocker for another match point, setting up Demirci’s clinching swing.
“It was really hard especially because our momentum was gone,” Demirci said. “It’s hard to come back from a two-game win and then lose the next two. We had to find our momentum again.”
State College was taking advantage of Norwin errors and playing a sound game on its side of the net to take the first two sets, and it seemed the Little Lions were going to cruise into the second round.
“When we jumped up 2-0, I think there was a little bit of uncertainty,” Kimel said. “ ‘Is this us? Is this really what’s happening?’ We haven’t faced a team of this strength and athleticism this season in match play.”
Norwin did not help itself with 19 hitting errors in those first two frames, plus committing seven net violations.
“We had been keeping our unforced errors out of double-digits for a long time now,” Knights coach Al Warden said. “I was very surprised. We had not played like that in a long time.”
But Norwin rallied, following the lead of 6-foot-6 lefty Sabelski, who knocked down seven of his kills in the third set.
“He can have a better game than that,” Warden said. “We had some setting errors to him. We had setting errors all the way across. But my lefty (Sabelski) is a pretty nice ballplayer. If we can get the ball to him he can do some things for us.”
Also, Shaffer had 11 of his kills over the final two frames.
The Little Lions may have started the season with a 2-5 record, but they continue to get better each match and are on fire at the right time.
“Coming from where we were, where we started, and seeing these guys do this, it’s an amazing feeling,” Kimel said. “I hope they continue to push through. After tonight, they can see that they’re a good team, they can see they can go with some of the best teams in the state.”