UNIVERSITY PARK — Finally, Pennsylvania’s best volleyball is back on the court where it should be played.
After six years at the other end of campus, the PIAA Championships for boys returned to Rec Hall on Saturday.
“I came into this gym, I had fire in my stomach,” Ambridge senior Lee Smith said. “I looked around, it’s awesome to be here. I’m going to be here next year and I can’t wait for that.”
Smith, whose Bridgers team was swept in straight sets by Northeastern in the Class AA final, is a Nittany Lion recruit, but he was not alone in the feelings of being on the court.
“It’s just a closer atmosphere,” said North Allegheny coach Dan Schall, who has spent countless hours in the building and whose brother, Mike, was once an assistant coach for the women’s team. “It’s where the big boys play, so just being here is a special environment. The fans are closer and everything about here is really special.”
Schall’s Tigers team was denied a second straight state title, falling to Central York in the Class AAA final in straight sets in the day’s second match.
“Playing in Rec Hall, when I found out the game was going to be here I was so excited,” said Central York senior setter Dylan Hose. “I come to games here all the time, seeing Penn State play on this floor, having the opportunity to play here was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Rec Hall hosted the boys’ state finals from 2005-07, but the matches were moved to the Multisport Facility in 2008. It meant there was air conditioning for the matches in mid-June, and also a lot more room both for matches and warm-ups when the tournament used to feature quarterfinal pool play for eight teams in two separate classes.
It also meant matches were played on synthetic floors laid over a running track, in a building that was not the most comfortable for viewing volleyball matches.
Not that the matches at the Multisport Facility were lacking in highlights. State College rocketed to the Class AAA title there in 2010.
But last year the tournaments became a true bracket, with only the finals held on-site, and last summer air conditioning was installed in the 86-year-old building.
Now, the top boys’ teams in the state get to play where two of the nation’s top college programs play. The Nittany Lion women have won six NCAA titles, more than any other in Division I, while the men have won two crowns and played in more national championship tournaments than any other program.
“This is the place to showcase volleyball,” said Jenn James, associate athletic director at Penn State who is heavily involved whenever the university is hosting PIAA events. “We the facilities. You can see everything is set up to showcase the volleyball – the best in the state.”
It means four teams are playing on the Rec Hall hardwood floor, with announcer Dean Devore calling each point, beneath a huge collection of banners bragging of all that on-court success.
“It’s Rec Hall,” Smith said. “You just look up, it’s an awesome feeling to really be here and play my real first match, not with Penn State but really with my brothers. That’s definitely an awesome feeling.”
Despite all that history, only the boys’ championships can realistically be held at Rec Hall. With the girls’ title matches held in mid-November, the logistics are too difficult with the Penn State women in season, wrestling underway and football likely also consuming the community.
Saturday also marks the start of a big week of high school sports action on campus.
The Nittany Lion Softball Park will host a pair of PIAA semifinal games on Monday, highlighted by a Centre County showdown between Bald Eagle Area and Philipsburg-Osceola.
A huge crowd is expected for that backyard battle, with a local team also guaranteed to be playing in the finals back there on Friday.
“We’re absolutely expecting a big crowd,” James said. “It was incredible, incredible softball (with earlier playoff games). Even if you weren’t a P-O fan or a Bald Eagle fan, it was incredible, incredible softball to watch. It was so exciting. The atmosphere was absolutely electric.”
Meanwhile, the baseball title games will be played a couple blocks away at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
Both stadiums are completing their fourth years hosting the state championships.
The PIAA has opened up bids to host the spring sports state championships for the next four years, and James confirmed Penn State is submitting bids again for all three championship events for the next four years. Because of conflicts, the university will not pursue the tennis, track or lacrosse finals.
“We have the bid in the works,” James said. “We’re working with the (minor league State College) Spikes for help with baseball, working with the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau for help with putting in the most attractive bid for those three championships.”