STATE COLLEGE — With every thunderous Cole Brillhart kill, every authoritative block and every eruption of cheer by the Northeastern fans, the Bobcats inched closer and closer to an unprecedented fifth consecutive PIAA Class 2-A state championship on Saturday afternoon.
Then, with one final kill that was struck with such menace by senior Dakoda Hoffman that a Beaver County Christian defender could barely get his hands up in time to protect himself, Northeastern kept its streak alive.
It wasn't a sweep like the three prior to it, but it was convincingly won in four games, 25-13, 25-22, 21-25, 25-20, with the Bobcats walking off of Penn State's Rec Hall floor as state champions once more.
"Remarkable," described Northeastern coach Matt Wilson. "...The day I first picked up a clipboard and the day my fellow coaches all came together, I don't think any of us ever dreamt in our wildest dreams that we'd be able to take a program from where it once was to where it is today."
It was fitting that Hoffman, just one of three seniors on the roster and two healthy enough to play in the match, recorded the final kill.
On his final swing in his high school career, he made it a golden one.
"At first, it was great to get the kill, but I didn't see that it hit him," Hoffman said of his winning kill. "When I turned around and saw people celebrating, it really brought me up, but when they told me where it hit him, it was awesome."
This year's team wasn't constructed like past state champions. Instead of loads of experience, there were loads of varsity inexperience on this year's squad.
But, that didn't prevent the Bobcats from replicating what the four teams prior to them had done.
Brillhart's dominance: Over the course of the match, whenever Northeastern needed to put an end to an Eagles' run or come up with a much-needed point, it turned to Brillhart, its junior outside hitter.
Time and time again, Brillhart put the finishing touches on winning points for the Bobcats, coming up with 30 kills, five blocks and a service ace.
"This game and the (state) semifinals were probably up there with two of my better ones, individually," he said. "I thought really coming out early I was in a good rhythm."
Quick lead: Northeastern had little trouble in the opening game, turning an early two-point deficit into a 9-6 lead, thanks to an 8-2 run. The lead only grew as the Bobcats pushed their lead up to 19-12 and then closed out the first game on a 6-1 run.
The second game was much closer, with BCC keeping things tied up until 19-19. However, Northeastern found its champion's mentality to close things out, winning 25-23 to take a commanding 2-0 lead.
Eagles' comeback attempt: But, if there was any question with the heart of the Eagles, there wasn't after the third game. While BCC could've easily given in and taken a sweep like the three previous state runner-ups had done against the Bobcats, it chose against it. The Eagles scored a 25-21 win in the third game to put just a little pressure on Northeastern.
"We had to make sure that we stuck to the plan," freshman Nate Wilson said. "Even though they made runs, we had to make runs ourselves. We had a little bit of a run at the end (of the third game), which we gained momentum back. We probably felt like we weren't going to win that one, but since we gained momentum back with a nice run, we had momentum going into the fourth set."
Closing it out: The two teams were nip and tuck through the early portion of the fourth game, with both teams trading points through the first 13 of the game. The Bobcats were the first to finally put together back-to-back winning points and eventually took control with a 4-0 run that helped them build a 14-10 lead.
Beaver County Christian kept within reach as the game progressed, but could never get on enough of a scoring run to narrow Northeastern's lead, ultimately finding itself facing seven match points. While the Eagles saved two of them, it was the third one that saw Hoffman close out the match and secure the state title.
It was a balanced team effort for the Bobcats, with several players chipping in in big ways. Aside from Brillhart's monster afternoon, Wyatt Hughes added 12 kills, while Nate Wilson had nine of his own. Nate Eyster was part of three blocks, Jacob Cheuvront passed for 56 assists and, while his serving stats didn't lead to any personal accolades, Drew Wilson was the server in a few of Northeastern's many big scoring runs.
There was a great unknown about what this Bobcats team could be after graduating all six starters from last year's squad. So, it was up to the players to establish their own mark on the program, which was solidified with state gold.
"Nobody thought that we could go out and get this far and win it all," senior libero James Toomey said. "These guys are great. It's a whole team effort and it took all of us to come together, come out here, kick some butt and win this fifth state title in a row."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org