You could call it an oddball approach but it was just the kind of practice session a volleyball team preparing for a grueling second-round matchup in the PIAA tournament needed.
A day after the State College Little Lions ousted favored Norwin in a draining, five-set opening-round match of the PIAA Class AAA tournament, head coach Kim-Li Kimel took her team to the local bowling alley.
Outside and middle hitters went for strikes rather than spikes. Some players opted for the comical “granny style” two-handed bowling approach. According to State College senior Andrew Groves, assistant coaches Kirk Hoover and Mike Conkey and teammate Parker Thompson tore it up on the lanes.
“They had a great time,” Kimel said. “I think it was in part a reaction to the intensity and the emotional ups and downs of Wednesday, I didn’t think we were going to get back in the gym and get a whole lot of production out of these guys. We were gassed physically, we were gassed emotionally. It was a nice break.”
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But the brief rest and relaxation period ended on Friday as the Little Lions (10-6) were back in the gym preparing to take on WPIAL champion North Allegheny (20-1) in Round 2 Saturday at Indiana High School. The match is set for a 1 p.m. start.
The Little Lions have faced the Tigers before, most recently in late March at North Allegheny’s own invitational tournament. Then, the Tigers won a 2-0 game 25-17 and 25-20. State College players know what to expect from their opponents who battered Fox Chapel in straight sets in Round 1.
“Traditionally they’re very solid and deep all around,” Groves said. “They’re very disciplined and don’t make a lot of mistakes. So we’re going to have to limit our errors if we want to push them I think.”
But since that season-opening meeting in March, the Little Lions have learned to expect much more from themselves.
The first few weeks of the season were filled with tough learning experiences and slowed by injuries for the Little Lions. They went just 2-5 to start the season. During the early stretch, State College turned misfortune into advantage that has projected toward the latter leg of the season.
Initially, injuries to big-minute players forced Kimel to shuffle her lineup. The Little Lions were able to get inexperienced players into the rotation and shift certain players around to increase their utility and ability to play other positions. As a result, sophomores Noah Christie and Brandon Kuruzovich have emerged as viable options as setters while seniors like Groves and Thompson have been able to contribute offensively as well as defensively.
“We have a lot of guys that can play a couple of positions which I think originally is kind of hard to handle because we were switching around so much,” Groves said. “But at this point of the season everyone can do so many things it becomes more of a benefit than anything else.”
And the proof has been in the results.
The Little Lions have won eight of their last nine games. Their recent run of success was punctuated by the 3-2 win against WPIAL runner-up Norwin on Wednesday. But as North Allegheny hammered Fox Chapel 25-16, 25-18 and 25-17, the Little Lions had to dig deep to prevent a collapse against the Knights.
State College won the first two sets but fell in the next two in mistake-prone sets. Eventually, the Little Lions emerged with a 16-14 win in the deciding set to advance.
“I think we played not to lose in the third and fourth sets,” Kimel said. “We were really proud to see them force that momentum back our way and demand that of themselves.”
Groves said the Little Lions settled in, thinking they had the game won after going up 2-0 on Norwin. Instead, State College players learned firsthand how tough it is to close out a game at this level. With that experience behind them, Groves believes the Little Lions won’t fall into that same mode against North Allegheny.
“We kind of went into it expecting to kind of be pushed the whole time and I think that when we came out and started the game up 2-0 we were kind of honestly just surprised with ourselves and we thought we could just cruise to the end,” Groves said. “But with North Allegheny I think it’s completely different because they’re so strong all around. I think we can’t really let up at any time if we have a lead.”
Furthermore, the Little Lions are comfortable with playing the role of underdogs.
After spending Thursday afternoon bowling, the Little Lions returned to their gym for a routine practice on Friday. Kimel said they planned on working on fundamentals for 30 minutes in addition to working a few rotations and scrimmages.
“I don’t want to change the personality of my team right now by going in the gym and saying, ‘We’ve got to never make an error.’ Because that’s not who we are,” Kimel said. “We are a team that battles and fights and has faced a lot of adversity and I think it’s ok for them to embrace who we are.”