It was a daunting task, facing one of the best teams, and arguably the best player, in the entire state.
For some long stretches, the State College boys’ volleyball team was up to the task.
At crunch time, however, Chambersburg made the right moves.
The defending state champion Trojans pulled away in the late stages of each set for a 25-22, 25-23, 25-23 victory Thursday, disappointing a large crowd on hand for Senior Night.
The Little Lions (6-7, 4-5 Mid-Penn) had the toughest time slowing down Chambersburg star Mitch Stahl. The 6-foot-9 outside hitter, who is heading to UCLA, knocked down 20 kills to go with eight digs and a pair of aces.
“We did a good job staying with him,” Little Lion senior middle blocker Eric Deshong said. “But it does hurt to lose that close every game.”
With a four-inch advantage on Deshong and even more on the rest of the Little Lions, he had plenty of success against their blocking attempts.
“It’s tough. I stubbed a couple fingers,” said Deshong, who had 10 kills, 2 1/2 blocks and two aces. “You just try to cheat towards him and anticipate him.”
Deniz Demirci’s 11 kills led the Little Lions, Ibrahim Almoaiqel also had 10 kills and two aces, Noah Hanahan collected 29 digs, Andrew Groves gave out 24 assists and Alex Novack added 11 digs.
It was a tough night for State College, leading in every set but unable to close the deal.
The Little Lions led early in the first set, saw Chambersburg (13-1, 10-0) surge to a lead as large as six, then rallied to knot the frame at 19-19. But three State College errors helped the Trojans close out the frame.
The Little Lions dictated play even more in the second, holding Stahl to just two kills in the set, but they also made 13 unforced errors. The game was tied at 17-17 before Chambersburg again was able to pull away.
State College again led for parts of the third, though the Trojans took control much earlier. The Little Lions fought off two match points before a timeout set up a play in which everyone in the gym knew who would get the ball — and Stahl still put it away with a cross-court rocket from the right side to end the match.
“He normally can put the ball away and can handle the pressure,” Chambersburg coach Marta Hodge said. “He does a good job with that. He knows as a captain and a leader, he’s the one who’s going to have to put the ball away.”
“I’ve got to do my best to help my team by terminating the ball, and I didn’t do a very good job of that tonight,” said Stahl, who had 11 kills in the third set alone. “Tonight was definitely not my best night. I was off. I need to step up as a leader of this team and convert those plays.”
It wasn’t like the giant senior was having his way with State College. The Little Lions blocked him twice and tracked down plenty of his swings or his kill total might have been into the upper 20s. On one point alone in the second, they dug up four of his put-away attempts, and on the penultimate point of the match, right before the timeout, he was dug up twice more on some huge swings.
“It’s challenging because he hits all the way around,” Little Lion coach Kim-Li Kimel said. “We managed him well. It’s like that old adage, ‘You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.’ We managed quite well. We had a serving strategy going in.”
When it was working, the State College service game was doing what Kimel hoped. They had six aces and far more often had Chambersburg off balance.
“That team is so good offensively that they very rarely have to play really tough defense and really good transition games” Kimel said. “We were really pressing our guys to put them on their heels, make sure they had to play defense and they had to work for points. When we put balls in play, in an aggressive manner, they struggled.”
“Hats off to State College — they served well,” Stahl said. “Playing in this environment, this home crowd, it’s tough to pass. But that’s no excuse.”
However, there were too many misses. They had 14 service errors and 17 hitting errors to give the Trojans plenty of free points.
“Lately we haven’t played to our potential,” Hodge said. “State College outplayed us. We got lucky with them missing serves, but they definitely outplayed us.”
Still, with some players coming back from injury and a solid game against a state power, the Little Lions are feeling a little more confident despite the loss.
“We’re on the upswing going into the playoffs, and that’s a good thing,” Kimel said. “The last time we took a game from them, but we didn’t play this well. I’m much happier with tonight’s match.”