It just seemed, no matter where the ball was set along the net, Cumberland Valley had a big, physical hitter to put it down.
The State College girls’ volleyball team just didn’t have enough answers to match up.
“They are a very tall team,” Lady Little Lion senior opposite Sydney McNulty said. “We knew coming into this it would be a very tough match. I think we went out there and gave it our best.”
State College had two strong sets Thursday night, but it wasn’t enough to prevail in an early-season Mid Penn Conference Commonwealth Division showdown, with the Lady Eagles prevailing 25-17, 25-17, 15-25, 25-23.
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Kyla Irwin paced State College (2-1) with 14 kills, five aces and three blocks, while McNulty had eight kills and three blocks. Taylor Kuruzovich gave out 18 assists, Janae Moran delivered three aces and the defense was busy with 19 digs for Tara Neidigh and 11 each for Abby Horner and Rosie Sowers.
Cumberland Valley (3-0) got plenty of production thanks to its sizable front line. Elizabeth Scott, a 6-foot outside hitter committed to Indiana-Purdue at Indianapolis, led with 14 kills. Meanwhile, 6-2 Juniata commit Marybeth Weihbrecht and 6-1 junior Stephanie Neast each had eight put-aways.
“That was it. Nothing more than that,” Lady Little Lion coach Chad Weight said of the size disparity. “We know we can’t (match up) so we have to be smarter. That’s all you can do.”
Weight was looking to use the size to his team’s advantage.
“Our setter’s got to do a good job of moving the ball around,” Weight said. “We’ve got to do a good job, as hitters, of hitting hands (and) moving the ball.”
Cumberland Valley coach Jackie Orner knows her team can win physically, but it takes a lot more to get them into position to put the ball away.
“Size helps, but ball-control is key,” said Orner, whose team finished leading in kills 45-28 and in blocks 7-4. “It’s great to have big offensive hitters, but if you can’t get the ball to them well, it doesn’t matter.”
The Lady Eagles’ physical display was evident the first two sets, with a 23-9 edge in kills and a 5-2 blocking advantage over those frames.
“The first two sets were pretty tough,” McNulty said. “It was mostly mental. Once you get down like that, it’s really hard to rally back, especially against a good team like that.”
State College started to take advantage of its assets in the third set, shooting to a 10-2 lead. McNulty and Irwin, at 6-2 the only starter who is taller than 6-0, combined for seven kills and two blocks in the game.
“It was our energy,” McNulty said. “Something completely changed on the court. We just went after it and we got it.”
The fourth set was the most balanced of all the frames, with far fewer errors and plenty of big swings on both sides. A Scott kill down the line finally ended the match.
“State College is always one of the strongest teams in our division, so coming up here you know they’re going to be a very scrappy, defensively-strong team all the time,” Orner said. “They’re going to give you a fight. It’s always a good gauge.”
The Lady Little Lions had to play without one of its key contributors, when sophomore outside hitter Alli Henderson crumbled to the floor with an apparent knee injury during pre-match warmups. Weight was unsure of Henderson’s status.
The match was a showdown between the two programs that have been at the top of the conference standings each of the last two seasons, but Weight was not concerned about the loss and what it means for a Mid Penn title this year. His eyes are on late October and November for the postseason.
“We obviously always want to win,” Weight said. “But we want to make sure we’re competing and we’re learning. This time of year is about learning. You don’t win anything right now.”