Leading 11-5 in Saturday’s fifth and final set, Hempfield girls volleyball coach Andrew Olree emphatically told his team “just four more points” during a timeout called by State College.
About an hour earlier, the odds of those words coming out of his mouth were slim to none.
The Little Lions had roared to a 2-0 lead before the Black Knights mounted a dramatic comeback and eventually pulled off a 3-2 win (17-25, 22-25, 25-19, 25-7, 15-9) in a PIAA Class 4A girls volleyball quarterfinal in Landisville.
“I’ve been on the losing end of being up 2-0 and losing in five numerous times, but I’ve never actually been on the winning side of it,” Olree said. “I told them, ‘Thank you,’ because this is one of the best wins I’ve been a part of.”
The comeback put the Knights (17-0) into a semifinal rematch with North Allegheny (16-0) — a 3-0 winner over Erie McDowell in another quarterfinal — at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Altoona.
North Allegheny, the three-time defending 4A state champ, beat Hempfield 3-1 in last year’s semis.
Senior captain Emma Bitner remembers it well, but wasn’t sure she’d get a shot at redemption after Saturday’s first two sets.
“I didn’t want to go out like that,” said Bitner, who had 22 assists and five aces. “I think that was going on in the back of everyone’s minds. Since it was mostly seniors playing, we knew we had to go out and fight our hardest, so we did.”
Fueled by setter/opposite Kacy Sekunda, who signed earlier this week to play next year at NCAA Division I Loyola (Maryland), the Little Lions took control of the first set, building a 19-9 lead.
Hempfield got no closer than 21-15 before falling to the Lions, who came into states by winning their 10th straight District Six championship.
The second set started out much the same as State College grabbed a 5-0 lead before the Knights tied it 6-6. Trailing 22-17, Hempfield scored five straight points to tie it again, but the Lions took the next three for a 2-0 lead in the match.
“First two sets, we all got down,” said Hempfield junior libero Ally Cummings, who had 20 digs. “After that, we knew our season was on the line. Even if we lose the first two sets, we can’t be thinking the game’s over. We have to keep pushing and that’s what we did.”
The comeback started with the Knights claiming their first lead of the afternoon, at 3-2 in the third set. The lead grew to 21-11 before the Lions tried staging a late rally that got them as close as 22-17.
“We finally came alive at the service line,” Olree said. “We put a lot of pressure on them from the service line and they were not getting in system like they were the first two games.”
Hempfield dominated the fourth set, jumping out to an 8-0 lead. Up 11-3, the Knights ran off nine straight points and took a 20-3 lead.
The momentum carried over to the fifth as the Knights took a 4-0 lead and never looked back.
“It was incredible,” Olree said. “The girls played awesome.”