UNIVERSITY PARK — It hasn’t happened very often, but Northeastern found itself in unfamiliar territory in Saturday’s PIAA volleyball championships at Penn State’s Rec Hall.
On a quest for their sixth-straight PIAA Class 2-A title, the Bobcats dropped the first set to a very good Manheim Central team.
Still, their response at was impressive.
Northeastern came back to dominate the second set and pulled out a tight third, before taking off again, winning a sixth-straight crown, and ninth overall, 23-25, 25-13, 25-22, 25-13.
The Bobcats (23-0) tied the PIAA record for consecutive boys' volleyball championships, equaling the mark set by Haverford from 1966-71.
“I think that’s awesome,” Northeastern head coach Matt Wilson said. “We said we were going after that. We didn’t say it publicly, but we talked about it.”
Assistants get credit: Still, this one wasn’t easy. Wilson and company had to respond from being behind in a match. He credited his assistant coaches for getting the team together.
“In Set 1, I had to go into emergency mode, but I know I don’t have to second guess what goes on behind me,” he said. “Those gentlemen need to be credited. My fellow coaches were the MVPs today.”
Epic response: The second-set response was epic. Northeastern ran off five consecutive points, capped by a Zech Sanderson kill, for a 10-5 lead. A short while later, setter Austin Richards executed a perfect dump and the Bobcats were up 16-7.
Manheim Central notched the next three points, but the Bobcats answered with three straight, part of an 8-1 run with Alex Finch, Cole Brillhart and Wyatt Hughes all scoring points, before Sanderson put the set away.
While that set tied the match, in many ways the third decided it.
Although Northeastern opened a 6-1 lead, the Barons were far from done, roaring back to tie the set at 11, then taking the lead on a Mason Nissley (13 kills) smash.
From there, neither team could extend a lead of more than one point. Back-and-forth volleyball entertained the huge contingent of fans from both schools.
Finally, Northeastern took advantage of a pair of hitting errors, and Brillhart’s kill made it 24-21.
After Tanner Stauffer got one point back, Brillhart fed Finch for the game-winner.
The 9-3 run that opened the fourth set had Bobcats’ fans thinking about six in a row. Although the Barons responded, 12-8 was as close as they would get.
Brillhart, who led all hitters with 17 kills, and Finch (nine), had a pair of kills during a 9-4 run that put Northeastern on the cusp with a 21-12 lead.
Wild, but familiar celebration: The two combined for a block that ended the match, securing yet another Northeastern championship, sparking a wild, yet familiar, celebration from players and coaches.
“The speed they go at is nearly impossible to simulate,” Manheim Central coach Craig Dietrich said. “Our guys played their hearts out. Getting that first set was a big confidence booster for us. We played well enough. Maybe if that third set goes the other way.”
Hughes added 13 kills for Northeastern as Richards had plenty of options while garnering 49 assists for the match.
“Every year we have one of, if not the best, setters in the state. I think you saw that today with a couple of plays,” Wilson said of Richards. “We have a plethora of weapons. Being the quarterback of such weaponry is hard.”
The Barons were terrific in the opening set, jumping out to leads of 8-4, 10-5, then 12-7.
A pair of hitting errors helped the Bobcats pull within 13-12, but Manheim Central was able to trade points until a Stauffer kill put the Barons ahead 21-17.
Stauffer, who finished with 12 kills, put the first set away.
Wilson said the Barons’ effort was expected, after the two faced each other in the District 3 title match, won in three sets by Northeastern.
“I don’t think our staff was surprised,” he said. “The difference with Manheim Central from other teams is their ability to carry through a set.”
With the team gathered around its newly-won championship trophy, Wilson was asked how six championship teams can be compared.
“Every team is different. They all deserve to be told they are the best,” he answered.
Northeastern is moving up to Class 3-A next season.
Reach Steve Navaroli at firstname.lastname@example.org.