When an athlete is a member of a team that has won five straight state championships — such as the Northeastern boys’ volleyball club — one might assume that athlete possesses all the confidence he could need.
Simply earning a roster spot and slipping on the Bobcats' uniform could be considered an achievement that proved you belonged.
However, an already composed Northeastern team has gained another measure of self-assurance — and finally put a trophy in its case that had been missing among the huge cluster of York-Adams League, District 3 and PIAA hardware.
Northeastern defeated Cumberland Valley 25-23, 25-21 on Saturday at Central York High School to capture the school's first-ever Koller Classic title.
Its roots: The Koller Classic is one of two prestigious midseason tournaments held in the area — the other being Northeastern’s own Bobcat invitational.
Starting in 1976, then known as the Central Invitational Tournament, the event served as a chance for the state’s top teams to compete before there were district and state tournaments. In 1982, the event saw a name change to the Central Open, before becoming the Panther Classic in 1984.
When state Hall of Fame coaches Bruce and Barb Koller retired from coaching the Panthers in 2001, the next head coach, Brad Livingston, and the team wanted to honor their service. So, in 2002 the tournament was given its current moniker.
“It’s unique. There aren’t many things like this where you take two, three weekends a year, midseason, and spend a whole day locking horns and knocking heads,” Northeastern head coach Matt Wilson said. “But it’s been the tradition since the ’60s, ‘70s, where most of your matches were played on weekends. So, while the sport has changed, this element remains unique.”
Excelling vs. 3-A schools: By winning the event, as well as the Cambridge Classic and Bobcat Invitational this season, these Bobcats are dispelling old notions. Each success, against premier nonleague competition, reinforces the idea that Northeastern is again a force to be reckoned with, regardless of who is on the other side of the net.
The Koller Classic featured five of the top 10 teams in the state in 2-A, including the top-ranked Bobcats, as well as Ambridge (No. 3), Derry (No. 4), Cambridge Springs (No. 7) and York Suburban (No. 10).
The field from 3-A was even deeper, with top-ranked North Allegheny in attendance, as well as Hempfield (No. 2), Cumberland Valley (No. 3), Emmaus (No. 4), Central York (No. 5), Pennsbury (No. 8) and Central Dauphin (No. 10) all involved in the 20-team event.
The Bobcats were in a pool with 3-A powers Central Dauphin, Pennsbury and Emmaus to start the day. They then took down Suburban, State College and North Allegheny in succession to reach the finals.
Those who feel the unfortunate need to discredit some of the Bobcats' success usually point to their dominance in the “smaller class.”
However, with continued triumphs vs. 3-A powers, that concept is fading fast.
“It shows you how deep, 2-A or 3-A, that we’ve always been able to compete, regardless of class,” Wilson said. “And today put a really good stamp on the fact that it doesn’t matter the size of the school. You can play with anyone if you’ve got solid people and a solid program.”
Overcoming adversity: More specifically to this incarnation of the Bobcats, is the added confidence gained from having to overcome adversity under pressure to capture the crown. For starters, there's the grind that comes with events such as these for all of the participants, but it only intensifies as the day continues for the more successful squads.
By the time they hoisted their trophy, the Bobcats had put in close to a 13-hour day. It can make it difficult to find moments for proper rest and refueling.
At one point, while gutting out their title-clinching effort in the title match’s second set, three different Bobcats players experienced cramping issues while on the floor.
There’s also the mental distraction that comes with trying to stay focused on the ever-changing task at hand in this day of persistent electronic interference.
“This is a long day, and there’s some attrition that takes place,” Wilson said. “But we’ve said all year we’re very deep and we’ve been preaching that. And, today, I thought that depth rose to the surface. It shows how strong and how deep we are as a program, and it worked in our advantage today.”
Making adjustments: One of the biggest bits of bad luck to hit the Bobcats was when senior middle hitter Nate Eyster went down with an apparent ankle injury during the semifinals against North Allegheny.
The Bobcats trailed by three late in the one-game set when Eyster went down. The Bobcats, however, rallied in time slip into the title match. Northeastern also needed to make similar adjustments throughout the day as players were temporarily unavailable.
“(Tournaments are) really good for seeing how conditioned we are, and how in shape we are. And it shows us how to last in those five-game situations later,” Bobcats senior outside hitter Cole Brillhart said. “I looked down at the pamphlet, and it said ‘43rd annual.’ So, to be a part of something so long-going and so high-level and tradition-rich, and to be a part of Northeastern’s first title, plus the fans that are here all day long, it’s something special.”
Brillhart’s steady and powerful performance throughout the day earned him the Brad Livingston MVP. And players such as Wyatt Hughes dominated from the service line, among other crucial efforts needed throughout the day to capture the crown.
Plenty of work to do: One of the benefits of being such a seasoned champion is the knowledge that one tournament title does not a season make. While Wilson and the Bobcats appreciate their accomplishments, they know there’s plenty of work left ahead of them.
“So far, the season’s been pretty good. But we know there’s a Manheim Central and a few others, York Suburban in our backyard, still lurking out there,” Wilson said. “We’ll enjoy this, but we’ll go back to work on Monday.”
— Reach Elijah Armold at firstname.lastname@example.org