When asked how many different starting lineups the State College boys’ volleyball team has had over the course of this season, coach Kim-Li Kimel started to laugh.
“Double-digits, easily,” she responded, also figuring just two members of the varsity have not played in multiple positions since the season began in late March.
The Little Lion program usually has been a picture of stability, with players working their way up to the starting lineup with experience, and the annual expectation is for a district title and a deep run in the state tournament.
“We all had high ambitions going into the season,” senior libero Parker Thompson said. “When all the lineup changes started happening, we all kind of lost confidence, I think. But I think now we’re starting to find our groove and practice is getting a lot more challenging.”
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The team (7-6) has been playing well the last few weeks and will put it all to the test when it meets Altoona (13-1) in the District 6 Class AAA Championship match at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Tyrone Middle School. The match will follow Forest Hills and Bishop Guilfoyle meeting for the Class AA final at 6 p.m.
Some of State College’s changes were expected, but some were not, like injuries.
It left Kimel walking out of her lab each week with a new chemical combination to see if it was stable. Early, the results were less than ideal, opening the season with a 2-5 record.
“The lineup has been super, super fluid,” Kimel said. “It’s been a challenge.”
“It was a little rough at the beginning,” senior Andrew Groves said. “We’ve had a lot of shifting with positions and stuff like that. We’ve had some big injuries that have kind of played into that. That’s been kind of tough to work to.”
The 6-foot-5 Groves is one of those who has been in multiple positions. The right-side hitter added setter to his job title during the season, splitting the duties as part of a 6-2 offense. He also was a setter last season.
“It’s interesting doing both ends of the spectrum in the same game,” said Groves, who is a right-side hitter in the front row and setting while in the back row, with either of sophomores Brandon Kuruzovich or Noah Christie picking up the other half of the setting duties.
“It’s more the decisions, the choices, based off knowing your hitters and stuff like that, because that takes a little bit of time to get the chemistry down,” Groves said. “Basically time and reps help with that.”
Thompson, a defensive specialist who plans to try to walk on with Penn State next season, also was a setter for part of the season — he has solid instincts and knowledge of the game but had never played the position before — but that left a hole in the team’s defense and passing.
Kimel said the combinations finally began to click when her team hosted its annual tournament in late April, facing many of the state’s top teams. The Little Lions lost in the quarterfinals, but there finally seemed to be some comfort and stability on the floor.
The following week produced a 3-1 win over Central Dauphin and a 3-2 victory over Cumberland Valley.
“That’s when it finally hit us that we’re starting to find our groove and we’re starting to look like a real team,” Thompson said.
They have rattled off five straight wins until the season ended with a 3-2 loss to Chambersburg.
“Where we are now, it’s definitely a good feeling,” Groves said. “We’ve been playing a lot better volleyball. Hopefully we can keep that going in the playoffs.”
That loss to close the regular season came on May 8, leaving the team idle for nearly two weeks. Now that they have found a working formula, the team has been antsy to get back on the court.
“As a coach there’s a little bit of relief that we’ve hit the point in the season where we put them on the court and just let them go,” Kimel said. “There’s not too much training and coaching other than a little feedback during the match.”
The Little Lions are looking forward to test the final product against the Mountain Lions.
“Everyone has good focus now,” Thompson said. “We all know what the goal is.”