With the way State College started the match, the Little Lions had to be wondering if they would get to this point.
Still, the suspense was killing them. A District 6 Class AAA boys’ volleyball title was on the line.
Deniz Demirci had rocketed a cross-court spike to the far corner, just missing the linesman in the process, and as the official regained his balance after dancing out of the way of the ball, everyone waited for him to make the call.
The ball was in, and State College had a fifth straight district title.
“There was some real suspense with that one,” said Eric Deshong, who had a team-high 14 kills. “But then we got to celebrate as a team and it was a nice feeling.”
Behind double-digit kill performances from Demirci, Deshong and Ibrahim Almoaiqel, State College rallied past Altoona 22-25, 25-23, 25-17, 25-22 Tuesday night at Tyrone Middle School.
“It feels really great because we came back and earned it,” said Almoaiqel, who added 12 kills, two aces and a pair of blocks. “It feels really good to come back and fight like a team.”
The Little Lions (9-7) will battle McDowell, a 3-0 winner over Allderdice on Monday, in a play-in game at 6 p.m. Thursday at DuBois High School. That winner will play in the PIAA first round on May 29.
Demirci had 13 kills, Clark Handel made three blocks, Noah Hanahan picked up 29 digs and Andrew Groves made 43 assists.
The Mountain Lions (8-5) were led by Brett Koelle’s 15 kills and Tanner Baumgartner’s 13 kills, 20 digs and two aces. Eric Wineland had 31 assists and Josh Huber had three blocks.
In a match that lasted two hours, and followed a five-set win for Bishop Guilfoyle over Northern Cambria in the Class AA final in the night’s first contest, it was a long night of volleyball.
It was made tougher by the opening set, when the Little Lions committed 17 errors, including eight from the service line.
“They had to take a moment after that first game and take a mental reset,” State College coach Kim-Li Kimel said. “Because we hadn’t seen them this year, that unknown can be a dangerous thing.”
It was an unusual match, with the longtime rivals who usually met twice a year during the regular season meeting for the first time this year on Tuesday, thanks to State College’s move to a schedule in the Mid-Penn Conference.
“We didn’t get a chance to play Altoona during the year,” said Deshong, who also had two blocks, “so we made the most out of this opportunity.”
State College made just 21 unforced errors the rest of the match, leaving far fewer free points for Altoona.
The Little Lions also got their offense humming, especially with a big second set for Deshong to turn up the heat. Deshong had five kills and a block during the frame, while Demirci and Almoaiqel each had three kills.
“When you cut your serving errors in half over three sets, that’s a big part of it,” said Kimel, whose team made just eight more miscues from the service line. “We struggled a little in the transition game that first game, and we did better with that. We also got some more kids engaged. We tweaked our lineup a little bit, trying to get the best matchups. And by the third and fourth games Andrew Groves, our setter, was making better choices.”
Deshong had just one kill in the third set, while Demirci, Almoiqel and John Dorsey each picked up the pace with their swings and diversified the offense.
Meanwhile, the youthful Mountain Lions, who lost most of their starting lineup to graduation from last season and had just two senior starters, started to play a little more ragged, including 16 hitting errors in the middle two sets.
“Second and third sets we definitely didn’t play our best ball,” Altoona coach John Saboe said. “Some of our youth started to show through and our inexperience at the varsity level was showing, even this late in the season.”
Saboe’s team fought off four match points, but after a State College timeout the Little Lions finally got back on track with Demirci finishing off the match and setting up a Thursday rematch with McDowell. The Little Lions dropped the Trojans in the same round a year ago.
“We just tried to play our game a little bit more,” Deshong said. “We didn’t want to get beat by their game.”