STATE COLLEGE — Central York junior Cole Johnson found his parents in the Rec Hall stands and gave them a hug.
When he embraced with his father, Jeff, his dad had a message for him: "Congratulations, but you're still not better than me."
At least now they're even.
Cole Johnson was part of a brilliant performance on Saturday afternoon that saw the Panthers win the program's seventh PIAA state championship, claiming the Class 3-A title with a win in four games over North Allegheny, 20-25, 25-21, 25-22, 25-23.
"We had great efforts from everyone tonight, from the middles to the outsides," senior setter Carter Luckenbaugh said. "I thought we competed well today."
Just from the sheer closeness of each game, the match seemed destined to go the full five sets. There were very few major scoring runs that buried either team in each set, creating drama down the stretch of each game.
It was up to Central York to not get tentative in those big moments and veer from what got it to that point, which was big hitting and going for shots.
"We preach being aggressive and risk-reward from the start," head coach Todd Goodling said. "So, I think that our guys are comfortable in tight situations knowing that they have the green light to go. You see a lot in high school athletic teams that get tentative when the score gets tight, or when things aren't going well. I was really proud today that, after not a real great start in our first game, that we went back and played Central volleyball and stayed aggressive."
Slow start: While the Tigers didn't blow the Panthers out of the water in the opening game, they dictated the play from the beginning. It didn't take long for North Allegheny to grab a lead in the opening set, eventually leading to a strong start and 25-20 win in Game 1.
What switched things in favor of Central came between the first and second games when Luckenbaugh brought the team together and issued a challenge to his teammates that they couldn't leave the court as the losing team.
"We said that we're going to win this in the next three sets," senior libero Zak Kakos said. "We're not going to step off this court until our side of the scoreboard says 25 (three times) first and I think that showed in our mentality the next three sets with pulling out three close games."
Turning around things: Again, things were competitive over the final three games, but it was the Panthers who dug deepest when it mattered most to prevail in each of the three games. After winning the second game, 25-21, to level the match, Central went on an 11-6 run in the third game to take control. The Panthers looked like they were going to cruise to an easy win, but the Tiger battled back to get within 23-22 before Central closed the deal with the final two points, capped by a Johnson kill to secure a 2-1 advantage.
Both teams held the lead in the fourth game on a couple occasions, with each side mounting its own rally in response to the other's. After North Allegheny went on a 4-1 run to take a two-point lead late in the game, the Panthers responded with a 5-1 push to move to within three points of the title.
Finally, on its second championship point, Central cashed in, when the Tigers made a mistake at the net to see the ball drop and the members of the Panthers' bench rush onto the court in celebration.
Big day for Johnson: Central rode the superb all-around play of Johnson throughout, seeing him finish with 22 kills, 11 digs and five aces. Playing on a court that could be his home one in a couple years, the Penn State recruit — among other major programs — was simply pleased he performed to his near best for the seniors.
"If I had come out here and not played a good game, even if we still would've won, but I still didn't play one of my better games, I'd feel a little upset and mad inside because I'd know I could've done better," he said. "But, because of this being the last game of the season and most of the seniors' last game, it make me feel a lot better inside knowing I could play close to my best for them."
Luckenbaugh finished his career with the Panthers with 45 assists, while Kakos capped his career with 22 digs.
The state championship also put a ribbon on a near-perfect year for Central, which included a York-Adams League title, District 3 3-A crown and state gold medal.
"I joined this team my sophomore year and, from the jump, everyone has said we're winning a state championship before we leave," Kakos said. "...We talked about what our goals were coming into this season and we said we wanted four championships and that was the league, county, district and state and we accomplished all of those."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org