The Northeastern High School boys' volleyball team seemed destined to take a step back this season.
It had to, right?.
The Bobcats graduated all six members of their starting rotation from last year's fourth consecutive PIAA Class 2-A state championship team, including All-American Reese Devilbiss, who now plays for Ohio State.
The Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association certainly anticipated a drop in production from Northeastern entering the year, ranking it sixth in the 2-A preseason rankings.
A fifth state title in a row? Ehhh, probably not.
State championships, however, are won on the court, not in the rankings, and the Bobcats showed that this weekend.
Northeastern began its season by going on the road and sweeping Beaver County Christian School, the top-ranked 2-A team in the state, 25-18, 25-20, 25-19. The Bobcats then followed that up with a championship-winning performance at the Saegertown Invitational on Saturday, a tournament that attracts a strong field. That included a victory over Cambridge Springs in the final, the No. 5 team in the 2-A rankings. Northeastern also knocked off Cambridge Springs in pool play, sweeping the best-of-three match.
"My biggest concern coming into this season was not whether or not we have good players," Bobcats head coach Matt Wilson said. "We've known since the day we departed from the state championship match that we were going to be in pretty good shape. But, what we didn't know was how we would react in a big game setting. For us, that's something that we were concerned about. You just don't know. We're breaking in a new setter. We're breaking in new faces in all positions and you just don't know how they're going to react."
In past years, a large reason why Northeastern was so successful was because there was a steady dose of holdovers from the previous season. Wilson never had to replace an entire starting lineup before. He could normally rely on the guys coming back to help along players who were slotting into new roles.
Not this year, though. This year's team, while not all just a bunch of fresh faces, had to find their identities on the fly, while filling voids left behind by some of the best players to ever come through the program.
Maybe that's what made this weekend so incredible.
An away contest against the top team in the state was a good measuring stick to see where some of those players stood. A loss would've been understandable, but a sweep victory? That seemed out of the question. Yet, it happened.
Then, to follow it up with a dominating performance in a tournament that boasts a field that might only trail this upcoming weekend's Bobcat Invitational in terms of sheer strength, well that was all the proof needed to realize that, no matter who is on the floor for the Bobcats, they're still the team to beat until proven otherwise.
By the looks of things from Friday night and Saturday, it seems like players have already found their roles. Jacob Cheuvront is replacing Matt Schaeffer as the team's lead setter, coming up with 38 assists in the win over Beaver County Christian. Wyatt Hughes, Dakoda Hoffman and Cole Brillhart are doing their part to make the transition from hitters Devilbiss and Jeff Reynolds go smoothly, combining for 31 kills over Beaver County Christian.
It was anticipated that, despite the losses, Northeastern would still be a force in York-Adams League play. The Bobcats, however, are a team that always challenges itself in out-of-league play, so the fact that it is still dominating some of the state's best will only force the other league members to again take notice and understand that this might not be the year that there will be a changing of the guard.
Maybe we should've seen this start coming. Even though all of the starters are new to their current roles, it's not like they're unfamiliar with playing varsity minutes. Last year's team was so commanding that most of these guys saw large chunks of time in matches when everything was well in hand.
In addition, Northeastern's dominance may not end anytime soon.
While the varsity team is the one that gets all the praise for its supremacy, the junior varsity team also flexed its muscles this weekend. The JV team also swept Beaver County Christian, 2-0, on Friday night, while also going unbeaten en route to the JV title at the Saegertown Invitational.
This weekend may have surprised some, showing that there may be no step back by the Bobcats this year.
To those on the inside with Northeastern, however, it was likely no shock.
Just business as usual.
"Our expectations are the same," Wilson reiterated. "That's one thing we try to stay consistent with our message and consistent with our environment on a nightly basis and that's going to continue regardless of talent level in our gym and we're blessed to have a group that gets it and I think it's a group that truly wants to set their own path, their own goal and own set at history for themselves."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com