Shortly after her team’s season came to an end, State College coach Kim-Li Kimel proudly looked at the big picture.
The Little Lions recovered from a rough 2-5 start and advanced to the PIAA Class AAA quarterfinals, where they fell Saturday to defending state champion North Allegheny in four sets at Indiana Area High School. State College couldn’t recover from an early two-set deficit against the WPIAL champion Tigers, but the Little Lions’ turnaround has already left an impression on Kimel.
“I would be hard-pressed to think about another season in which a team came so far from second week in March to now,” said Kimel, who’s been State College’s coach since 2000. “I mean just stunning.”
State College finished its run with a 25-23, 25-16, 20-25, 25-15 loss to North Allegheny (21-1). Andrew Groves paced the Little Lions (10-7) with 13 kills and added 18 assists, while teammate Deniz Demirci chipped in with 11 kills and 10 digs. For the Tigers, Mitch Higgins had 12 kills and Brendan Brown recorded 13 blocks and nine kills.
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The Little Lions battled the Tigers in the first set.
State College led 13-9 early, bringing its fans to their feet heading into the first timeout of the match. The Little Lions extended their lead to 16-11 before North Allegheny started to close the gap. The Tigers cut State College’s lead to 16-15 on a kill by Higgins, and they tied it at 17-17 on a block by Robert Stiefvater.
The Little Lions twice pulled ahead by one again before North Allegheny seized control for good after going up 21-20.
The Tigers ultimately won the back-and-forth first set 25-23 when Antonios Balouris tapped the ball over the net for a kill. State College had an opportunity to put the pressure on North Allgheny, but the Little Lions couldn’t close it out.
“I think that if we had taken that first game,” Kimel said, “we might be looking at a fifth right now.”
North Allegheny led from start to finish en route to a 25-16 win in the second set. After falling behind 3-0 in the third set, facing the possibility of a sweep, the Little Lions fought back and grabbed the lead.
An ace by Demirci tied it 4-4 and another ace by Demirci pushed State College ahead by one. The Tigers regained the lead before the Little Lions made another run en route to a 25-20 win, forcing a fourth set.
“There’s always a sense of desperation when your backs are against the wall,” North Allegheny coach Dan Schall said. “And they played really well that game, a couple rotations where they really took control of the match with their serve and with their block and played a great set. It was just important for us to stay emotionally pretty steady to come back in game four.”
North Allegheny regrouped, stormed to a 7-1 advantage to start the fourth game and rolled to a 25-15 win.
Though State College fell short Saturday, Kimel was pleased with her team’s performance and its growth from mid-March.
Kimel said it was one of the most satisfying seasons in her career.
“I think we’ll be talking about this season with other teams as we continue in our program for a long time,” Kimel said.