MECHANICSBURG — Consider the challenge complete, Northern Cambria. The Colts did it again.
The statewide target planted firmly on the team’s back couldn’t outweigh the goal that Northern Cambria had set one year ago today. If anything, it only made the team stronger.
So when coach Mike Hogan led largely the same group back to Cumberland Valley High School on Saturday, the Colts left very little doubt who would again be crowned No. 1.
Northern Cambria never trailed through two sets while quickly pushing Nativity BVM to the brink, and senior middle hitter Jenna Lutch put the finishing touches on a marathon final game with back-to-back kills as the Colts swept past the Green Wave, 25-14, 25-18, 31-29, to claim their second straight PIAA Class 1A volleyball championship.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Lutch said, donning a championship medal for the second straight year. “We worked together as a team. We never got down on each other. Coach Hogan always says, ‘It’s we, not me.’ And that’s what we live for every single game, every single practice. And that’s what got us this win.”
Northern Cambria (23-1), the District 6 champion, became the first team in the classification to win back-to-back PIAA titles since Reading Central Catholic won two straight in 2006-07.
In last year’s final, the Colts claimed a four-set victory over Berlin, which District 11 champion Nativity BVM (23-3) defeated in Tuesday’s semifinals.
And though Saturday’s title match proved to be more one-sided than anticipated, it was more of the culmination of two years’ worth of hard work than one last notch in the win column.
If the burden of the title already in tow wasn’t enough entering the season, the Colts added a daily reminder to the weight on their backs, carrying this motto on their pregame uniforms: “The only thing harder than winning one is winning two.”
With six starters returning from last year’s championship team — seniors Autumn Donatelli, Brooke Lieb, Rayna Buza and Lutch and juniors Camryn Dumm and Maggie Hogan — Northern Cambria answered its coach’s dare all season.
The state championship marked Mike Hogan’s fourth with the program, including titles in 2005 and ’09, but this year’s team might have set itself apart from each of the others.
“There’s a lot of things that they had to take care of and I’m super-proud of them for doing that,” the coach said. “Because I put the challenge on them, ‘People are going to come after you. You’re not going to win in by default. You have to go get it.’ That was hard.
“Every team is different. Everything you do is different every year. But this group here has been the most fluid and quick-moving team that I’ve had. And they’re goal-driven. They’ve been focused for two whole years in a row on winning a state title. … That’s a grind. That’s a lot, man, to do that time and again and be mature enough to say this is what we have to do to do it back-to-back. … That’s what makes them special. They’re into it.”
The Colts finished a championship triple crown for the third time in school history — capping off a sweep along with the Heritage Conference and District 6 titles — after losing in the district title game last year.
Northern Cambria’s lone defeat this season came early in the regular season to West Shamokin, which the Colts swept past in the conference championship match.
So with the year 2019 set to be added to a trio of championship banners in the gymnasium at Northern Cambria High, this season holds just a little more weight for the program’s five seniors.
“This one means more to me and probably our fellow seniors just because it is our senior year and we wanted to go out with a bang,” Lieb, an outside hitter, said. “We were able to accomplish all of our goals this year, put three numbers on the wall for Heritage, districts and state.”
And, of course, there’s the family factor.
Maggie Hogan — a 2018 all-state selection at outside hitter — earned her second state championship alongside her father, one-upping her older sister, Ashley, who played on the 2005 title team.
“It’s great. I love having him as my coach,” she said. “Most people think that you would fight a lot, but we’re actually really close. And it makes me super-excited that I have one more than my sister now.
“I’ve been playing with these girls since I was in fifth, sixth grade. We’re all best friends. It’s crazy that this happened, that we got to do this. … Back-to-back, that’s hard to do.”
Northern Cambria appeared poised for a smooth finish prior to the third set, when the Green Wave scored the first two points for its first lead and mounted an 8-1 run while building an 18-12 advantage.
The Colts placed some of the blame on themselves for losing focus with the title within their sights, but also credited Nativity BVM for it stout front line that loaded up to double-block Maggie Hogan at the net.
“Our confidence was high,” Maggie Hogan said. “Our first push was really strong, and as soon as we let off the gas a little bit, they were on us. So it was sort of like their wake-up call. It was a good game.”
Of course, the Green Wave couldn’t roll over the Colts for long.
With so much attention shifted toward Northern Cambria’s top hitter, it opened up the middle of the court for Lutch, who notched four kills within a five-volley sequence as the Colts rallied to forge a 22-all tie.
Each team traded side outs while forcing extra volleys as a pair of service errors cost Nativity BVM possession, and just as she had late in Tuesday’s semifinal victory over Clarion, Lutch saved her best for last with a championship-clinching strike at the net.
“That’s when I usually start kicking into gear,” Lutch said. “I’m like, ‘Get me the ball. I’m ready. I’m fast. Let’s get it.’ … They put so much block on (Maggie) they didn’t even see me coming. So they weren’t ready.”
“They were loading up on Mags, who still had a very complete game,” Mike Hogan said. “We found a matchup with Jenna Lutch that we really liked. … It was right there. She just kept popping it and really made a great conclusion to her career here playing like that.”
Maggie Hogan and Lutch led Northern Cambria in kills. Dumm and Donatelli paced the team in service points, Buza tallied double-digit digs at her libero position, and Lieb and junior Emma Kollar provided the majority of the Colts’ blocks at the net.
Zoey Novella, a senior, and Jessica Krug each rotated off the bench.
The Colts finished how they have competed all season: as a complete group.
In their coach’s eyes, that’s what made Northern Cambria a two-time state champion.
“We did have a few mistakes,” Coach Hogan said, “and we talked about that: ‘You’re not going to play perfect. You just handle the good plays, handle the bad plays and stay in the present.’ And they did a good job of that, and that’s really what gets them cranking.
“The offense was spread out and different players were hitting. We had to do that because they had a couple big blockers on. So we move the ball around, find the hot hitter and go to work, and that’s how unselfish that team is.”