After watching an early two-game lead slipping away, Altoona Area High School boys volleyball coach John Saboe turned to the Mountain Lions' biggest asset, which brought to mind a completely different sport that was perfectly fitting in a match against a team nicknamed the "Colts.''
"We have nine seniors on this team. This isn't their first rodeo, so to speak,'' Saboe said. "They've been down this road before. They're mature. This is probably one of the most mentally focused teams I've had.''
When they were challenged, Saboe's Lions found a way, scoring 14 of the last 23 points to corral host Northern Cambria in four games, 25-16, 25-21, 15-25, 25-10, in a Mid-State League contest on Thursday night to stay unbeaten through eight matches.
"Our passing got a lot better, and then we put a few swings down,'' said Lion senior outside hitter Mitchell Snyder, who had two kills and a block for three of Altoona's final four points. "We're very close. Our chemistry is very good. Our passing is our key.''
That was most apparent in the first two games, as Altoona stormed ahead on the strength of crisp, precise ball movement courtesy of twin setters Tanner Baumgartner and Branden McGarvey. Baumgartner, the junior starter, had 22 assists, while McGarvey, a senior often playing in tandem with Baumgartner, dished out 12 off the bench.
"If our passing's on, we can do well, because our setters can get the ball to our best hitters and make the best decisions,'' McGarvey said. "It's great working with him, because, when he's in the front row, he's a great hitter, too. Whenever I have to pass, I know I can just get it to him, because he can either set or just hit it. We're always in system.''
After relying almost totally on Jeff Hogan in the first two games, Northern Cambria came back from an early 8-3 deficit to take the third behind the strong net play of Brennan Carroll (four kills, one block) and the serving of Brandon Daisley and Tyler Hartman (four points apiece).
The Colts dipped to 5-5 overall and 4-4 in the league.
"We just didn't have a very good night. Altoona took us right out of our game,'' NC coach Mike Hogan said. "The biggest challenge of playing them is that they have one or two really good players, but their role players are very good, too, and very experienced. Our role players are pretty new, and that means our experienced players have to play the game of their life every night.
"I wish we would have raised to the challenge a little better. I don't think we played our best effort against the best team in the conference.''
Still, Northern Cambria was right there in the fourth game, tied 11-11 and then down just 16-15 with the serve. However, Snyder rose up when he needed to, winning a joust against the Colts' Nick Lee from the Northern Cambria side of the net to make it 22-18, then putting away a couple of good sets, the last off an NC block, to end the match.
"I just know what Nick's going to do, and I was able to go up with him,'' Snyder said of the joust win.
A strong player as a junior, Snyder has raised his level of play this year. Virtually automatic at the net, he had a match-high 16 kills to go along with six service points.
"The most important thing for Mitchell this year is his mental game. He doesn't let little things affect him,'' Saboe said.
That seems to be the case for the Lions as a whole.
"We've played together since eighth, ninth grade, and we just have this chemistry,'' McGarvey said. "We know where everyone's going to be at all times and give the best passes to each other.''
Despite the perfect record, Saboe doesn't want to get ahead of himself.
"It's nice, but I'm more worried about the district playoffs,'' Saboe said.
Match notes: Lion libero Brandon Stitt put together a solid performance with 20 digs and 11 service points, both team highs. Jeff Hogan had 14 kills to pace Northern Cambria. The Altoona JVs also improved to 8-0 by winning in straight games. Northern Cambria returns to the court tonight when it hosts Upper St. Clair. Altoona will have to wait until a home match Tuesday against DuBois to try to go to 9-0.
ALTOONA: Stitt 11, McGarvey 8, Gingrich 6, Snyder 6, Baumgartner 5, Clawson 5, DeGennaro 1.
NORTHERN CAMBRIA: Daisley 11, Hartman 6, Hogan 5, Carroll 4, N. Lee 4, Z. Lee 3, T. Olish 1.
ALTOONA: Snyder 16, Baumgartner 8, Stewart 7, Gingrich 4, Hall 3, Koelle 3.
NORTHERN CAMBRIA: Hogan 14, Carroll 6, N. Lee 6, Atkins 2, Daisley 1.
ALTOONA: Hall 2, Gingrich 2, Snyder 1, Stewart 1, Baumgartner 1, Koelle 1.
NORTHERN CAMBRIA: Hogan 3, Carroll 3, N. Lee 1, T. Olish 1, Daisley 1, Atkins 1.
Team records: Altoona (8-0; 8-0 MSL); Northern Cambria (5-5; 4-4 MSL).
Officials: Tammi Yeckley, Patty Sharbaugh.
JV: Altoona, 25-17, 25-23. Altoona is 8-0. Northern Cambria is 5-5.