When the State College and Bald Eagle Area girls’ volleyball teams hit the court Tuesday night for their opening-round matches of the PIAA tournament, they know they will have a little extra support in the Penn Cambria High School gymnasium.
Each team helped the other prepare for this stage, strengthened by a friendly rivalry.
“It’s nice to have fans, nice to have an extra cheering section,” State College junior libero Katie Finlan said during the team’s practice Monday afternoon.
The teams have been intertwined for years, with roots that date back before any of them were in kindergarten, but they get to play PIAA matches on the same court on the same day for the first time. They’ve practiced together, cheered together — and now they’ll come full circle Tuesday.
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The Lady Eagles (19-0) hit the court first, meeting District 7 runner-up Freeport (21-3) at 5 p.m., before the Lady Little Lions (15-3) face District 7 third-place finisher Seneca Valley (19-5) at 6:30 p.m.
State College players want to get up to the court in Cresson early to watch their friends, and BEA players will stay as long as they can — there is school the next day — to catch the second contest.
Both BEA coach Larry Campbell and State College coach Chad Weight were hoping for this doubleheader.
The pair have known each other since before they became coaches, as teammates in Centre Region Parks and Rec leagues for close to 15 years. A dozen years ago, when Campbell was coaching Bellefonte, Weight was an assistant coach. When Campbell left for BEA, Weight took over the program before he went to State College. When junior high volleyball was a spring sport until four years ago, Weight coached the Park Forest team while Campbell led Mount Nittany, with current State College setter Leah Henderson among his players then.
Despite playing in different PIAA classes and leagues, the coaches have kept the connection. They trade ideas frequently, help with scouting and — most importantly — have their teams play with and against each other.
“We need each other because we’re here,” Weight said. “We challenge each other, and that’s helpful.”
There are preseason scrimmages in August, another scrimmage before the start of districts, and the occasional meeting in a tournament. BEA won at Northern Cambria’s tournament in early September, while State College rallied from an 11-2 deficit to win a month later in the Lady Little Lions’ tournament.
“It was very fun to beat them,” Finlan said. “I’m not going to lie.”
During those tournaments, each coach passed along advice to the others’ players.
“I don’t worry about it because he’s saying the same thing that we preach,” Campbell said. “It’s really nice to have someone else, with a pedigree like that. To preach a lot of the same principles that we preach.”
The best part of the relationship, however, comes in the summer when BEA hosts an open gym. There are a handful of girls from Bellefonte, but most are from State College and BEA.
The matches also get pretty heated — in a good way.
“We went hard at each other,” said State College senior middle hitter Chloe Thompson, who has the added perspective of playing previously at Bellefonte, transferring before this school year.
“There is absolutely some trash talk that goes on in between some plays.”
Finlan at first downplayed the chatter, then grinned as she thought back to the fun summer evenings.
“It’s very competitive,” Finlan said. “We kind of have a competition going on. It’s kind of a rivalry, but it’s also a friendship. We definitely go hard all the time. We get very loud, very energetic in the gym when we’re all together.”
The relationships carried over to this fall, trading messages through social media. When they met on court for the tournaments, the chatter was limited and play was more business-like, but after the final whistle, there were reminders about one play or another.
No matter what happens Tuesday night, both teams know their friendly rivals helped get them to this point in the season.
“My dream is on Wednesday you’ll read the paper and the lead will be both teams are going to the final eight,” Campbell said. “Then you’ll read on Sunday that both of us are going to the final four. That would be such a cool experience, not just we’re doing good stuff like that ... but people you work with do good stuff too. It has an impact and it matters.”
State College vs. Norwin at Hollidaysburg HS, 6 p.m.
Bald Eagle Area vs. Freeport at Penn Cambria HS, 5 p.m.
State College vs. Seneca Valley at Penn Cambria HS, 6:30 p.m.