SIDMAN — Even a reigning state champion can stumble to the occasional messy set.
Northern Cambria hopes it got its last out of the way as quickly as possible in its return to the PIAA Class 1A volleyball playoffs.
Opening their title defense against WPIAL runner-up Fort Cherry on Tuesday night, the District 6 champion Colts uncharacteristically allowed their own miscues to plague them into unfamiliar territory: facing a deficit for the first time in the postseason.
All-state outside hitter Maggie Hogan struggled to find her stroke, the front line that had already paved its way to a pair of titles this season couldn’t control the net and communication fell silent as the ball too often fell uncontested to the court.
Then, as it almost always has for Northern Cambria for well over a year, it all clicked.
“We were just thinking too much,” Colts senior outside hitter Brooke Lieb said. “It just messed with us mentally. … But as the match went on and Maggie got rolling and the team got rolling with Maggie, it just fell right together.”
Northern Cambria dispelled any concern following an early slump, using back-to-back decisive sets and one thrilling match-ending surge to dispatch the Rangers, 21-25, 25-16, 25-14, 26-24, in the opening round of the state tournament at Forest Hill High School.
And at no point did the Colts bear more resemblance to their 2018 championship form than in the final sequence, when they trailed 19-24 before tallying a match-long, seven-point rally, capped with the last of Hogan’s double-digit kills.
So while it might not have seemed so at the time, Northern Cambria’s sluggish beginning could have been a blessing in disguise.
“We learn from it, because all good teams have to lose to do well,” Lieb added. “If you’re a good team and you never lose, you don’t know what it’s like to lose, so you don’t really know how to get back from it. We’ve been down many games, and that’s what really helped us to come back from that 19-24 … because we knew we’re a good team. We’ve done it for so long.”
Northern Cambria (20-1) continues Saturday when it takes on District 10 champion Cochranton (15-4) in the quarterfinals at a site and time to be determined.
The Cardinals claimed a four-set victory over District 9 runner-up Elk Catholic, 25-15, 25-16, 20-25, 25-15, in the first round Tuesday.
The Colts will aim for another short game after nearly going unblemished on their way to a district championship. Northern Cambria needed four sets to win in the quarterfinals of the tournament before sweeping past Juniata Valley on Thursday and District 6 runner-up Bishop Carroll on Saturday.
With a Heritage Conference title also in tow, the Colts have their sights set firmly on completing a championship triple crown — a feat that eluded them when they lost in the district final last year — but Northern Cambria knows it first must learn from Tuesday night.
“Big lessons in there,” coach Mike Hogan said. “I obviously didn’t have my kids ready to roll today. We didn’t start very well, so that’s the head coach’s fault. We have to have our heads on and dialed in a little better to start a match, and hopefully we’ll do that Saturday.
“I don’t think our game was at the level it needs to be to survive and play state-caliber volleyball. But we got our game going. I really give the girls credit for hanging in there when things were off in the beginning and we got rolling. … You survive and you move on. You don’t get upset about it. You just have to find a way to win a game and move on, and that’s what we had to do today.”
Northern Cambria took its final lead in the first set, 5-3, on a rotation violation before Fort Cherry (15-6) pulled ahead, often suffocating the Colts at the net and forcing them into extended volleys before the Rangers found an opening to secure the point.
“They forced us to play longer volleys, which is something we continue to work on, and they forced us to pick our game up,” Mike Hogan said. “So congrats to them for pushing us. They did a really nice job and I thought our kids hung in there and got going in the game.”
Fortunately for Colts, they’re no strangers to digging through long volleys, particularly with a defense led by senior libero Rayna Buza. And whenever the Rangers appeared to strike down a kill attempt, the middle and backcourt usually had an answer.
“We’re not the biggest team. We’re pretty tiny girls,” Lieb said. “Our tallest is maybe 5-foot-8 on a good day, so we need to be a team that can dig around blocks, because we’re not going to get many. If we do, that’s a bonus. And if we don’t, we need to have a back row that pick up every ball.
“And I tell Rayna Buza, me and her every time, I’m like, ‘Buza, nothing hits. Between me and you, nothing is going to hit this floor.’ And most of the time, we make it happen.”
In the second game, Fort Cherry scored each of the first three points and held an early 10-8 advantage. After three tied scores, Northern Cambria finally mounted an 8-2 run to claim a comfortable 20-14 lead. The third set nearly mirrored the second as the Colts snapped a 9-9 tie with an 11-2 run.
The final set was back-and-forth throughout before Fort Cherry snapped Northern Cambria’s 18-16 lead with an 8-1 run, but true to form, the Colts never panicked.
“It was scary,” Northern Cambria senior middle hitter Jenna Lutch said. “It was emotional. We knew we had it in us to win, but it was more of ‘We have to work together.’ And we weren’t doing that at all the first game, and then the fourth game, we kind of let it slip away. But then we came together in the end.
“We need to get our straight. We’re not unbeatable, and they got us. They got us in the first game and we need to keep that in our heads.”
Camryn Dumm had a team-high 14 service points for the Colts, including six in the fourth-set rally.
Autumn Donatelli posted 11 service points, including a trio of aces, Buza had seven service points and Hogan added six.
Junior middle hitter Emma Kollar, who rounds out Northern Cambria’s regular rotation, provided a much of the Colts’ stout defense at the net.