After losing the first two sets Wednesday night, State College’s Tyler Snyder had a message for his teammates: “It’s a five-game match. We can win this.”
The senior outside hitter was reminding his fellow Little Lions the volleyball match was far from over.
“As coaches we tell them that all the time,” coach Kim-Li Kimel said. “But coming from someone who’s battling on the court with his teammates, it’s important for them to hear those things from your seniors.”
He was right.
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State College battled all the way back before finally falling in the fifth set of its PIAA Class AAA first-round match to Bethel Park at the Altoona Field House.
“We said we weren’t going to get beat this season by any team unless they push us to the max,” Snyder said after the 25-19, 25-21, 19-25, 23-25, 15-13 Black Hawk win. “That last set, we played the best we could and that team did beat us. But we’re satisfied with that.”
Bethel Park (18-2) heads to the PIAA quarterfinals on Saturday while the Little Lions (10-5) see their season come to an end.
John Weakland posted a 13-kill, two-block night for State College while Peyton Stark added 11 kills and four total blocks, Snyder had 10 kills and eight digs, Gabe Avillion had four blocks, Noah Christie recorded 14 digs and Aaron Cymbor posted 12 digs and a pair of aces.
The Little Lions nearly overcame a monster performance from Jacob Dixon. The 6-foot-6 junior outside hitter put down 38 kills and added four blocks.
“He’s a really good player,” Snyder said. “We didn’t adjust well in the beginning, but we started to move around and get around him and play our game, then we didn’t worry about him as much.”
Dixon typically carries the bulk of the offensive load for the Black Hawks, with a powerful rocket swing, but his load was especially heavy Wednesday. No one else on his team had more than eight kills, and the rest of the team combined for just 21 put-aways.
Dixon delivered 10 kills in the first set alone, and 11 in the third frame. But by the third he also started to rack up the errors, and as much as he was getting the points, State College was making it tougher.
“He’s not easy to figure out,” Bethel Park coach Tom Allman said. “He just needs to elevate his game and do a little bit more.”
By the end, Dixon also had 19 hitting errors, including getting blocked four times.
“I said to the guys, ‘Just get a good block on him, just get a good swing on him,’” Kimel said. “We certainly weren’t trying to dominate or control what was happening over there, but we wanted to remain a threat offensively and defensively.”
The Little Lions also began to move their hitters around, sending Weakland and Snyder through the middle for some different hitting zones, finding more seams on the Black Hawk defense.
“We’re always trying to get the right matchups at the right times,” Kimel said. “(Dixon) is a monster, so we’re trying to go a little more through the middle and through the seams. Snyder hitting that (quick-set) two ball out of the middle is disgusting. It’s probably the hardest, fastest contact we have in our arsenal. It’s up and down so quick.”
Through the first two sets, it appeared the night was going to be short with a Bethel Park sweep, but that was when Snyder had his message for the team.
“I don’t know any other team that would have fought back like that,” Snyder said, “other than these guys on State College. We really showed our heart in that game.”
Knotted at 12-12 in the third, a 6-2 State College run turned the match, with three kills for Stark helping to spark the burst.
“Even after the first two, I knew they weren’t going to give up,” Allman said. “They’ve always been a tough team, tough to put away, and they’ve got some great swingers. They play the ball very well, pass the ball very well. We just got the final point.”
The momentum was clearly in the Little Lions’ favor heading to the fifth set, and back-to-back Bethel Park errors had State College up 8-5 in the fifth. But the Black Hawks fought back to knot it at 9-9, and a little later Dixon had kills on four out of five points, broken up by a Weakland kill, to put the Black Hawks up 13-11.
A Stark kill ended the run, but Nathan Harrold pounced on an overpass for a kill to give his team match point. State College had life after a service error, but a quick set to Noah Blanc sealed the final point and dashed the comeback hopes.
“It was awesome,” Kimel said. “With a team that good, you want to stick around, hang around, you want to be a threat, and when you want the opportunity, you have to execute. I think they finished this match extremely well. They would have loved to have started the match the way they finished it.”
The Little Lions thought there was going to be a storybook end to the match, and the season would continue, but the Black Hawks decided to change the story at the end.
“We thought we had that,” Snyder said. “We had the momentum going from the other two, and we all thought we could pull it together and do it.”