MONT ALTO – At last check, the Penn State Mont Alto women’s volleyball team was still in celebration mode.
That’s because, a little more than a week after winning their first ever United States Collegiate Athletic Conference championship, there is no more season for which to prepare.
You’ll have to excuse head coach Randy Hood if he is still a bit overwhelmed.
“I woke up the next day and said that really didn’t happen,” said Hood, the veteran volleyball coach who finished his sixth season at Mont Alto and his 24th overall season as a head coach or assistant. “I talked to a couple players who said the same thing. This is what you worked for. You really did it. It was pretty powerful, and it couldn’t have happened to a better group.”
Most of this year’s roster will be returning next season, including Waynesboro Area Senior High School alumni Gracie Vaughn (middle hitter) and Leslie Huckle (outside hitter). Same with Carlisle High School grads Brooke Denlinger and Kylie Denlinger.
PSUAC West Division First Team Position Player Kylee Gooding will not return next season. Goodling was a key cog to the Lady Lions fortunes as she racked up a team-high 359 kills from her outside hitter position. She was second on the team in digs with 343.
“We’re still riding the cloud a little bit longer,” Hood said just days after the championship match against Penn State York. “We 16 kids on this team that all bought into the culture, accepting their roles. That’s what brought them success.
“They had their minds made up that they’ve had enough drama on their past teams. It wasn’t like we didn’t have some errors at times.”
It might have been difficult to think that Mont Alto would have ended the season with an undefeated conference record and wins in 25 of its final 26 matches after the Lady Lions started off at 1-5.
“We got into that Gettysburg tournament, which I knew was going to be brutal,” Hood said. “I kind of had a feeling we weren’t going to come out of it with a win, and we didn’t. I told them before we went to Gettysburg that it was a preparation for the rest of the year. We were still coming together as a team. We had some kinks to work out. I was debating afterward if that was a good idea (competing in the Gettysburg tournament).”
Then, after being humbled in Gettysburg, the Lady Lions had to make the trip to Penn State Fayette for the conference opener.
“They came out and won the first two sets, and we won the next three,” Hood recalled. “Fayette is a storied program; they won the national championship two years ago. They dominated the conference for quite a while.
“To do that on their court and being down 2-0 and winning it, that got the girls to where they needed to be. From that point on we knew it was going to give us a run. We went to Greater Allegheny and took it in four. Three out of four games were 25-23.”
PSU Mont Alto dominated the rematch with Fayette at home to close out September, winning 3-1. The win gave the Lady Lions a 6-0 conference record, but they had yet to play Penn State York, which would be another litmus test for the Lions and how good they had become and could be.
“We definitely dominated the more we played,” said Hood. “We beat York there for the first time on their court. We took them in three straight. We went to Brandywine the next day and won in three sets.
“We felt like it was coming together. I told them not to lose focus. Every time you win, the target is on your back. York was number one in the East. It’s astonishing when you think about how we played them in the conference championship and the national championship.”
What was also astonishing was that Mont Alto registered shutouts (3-0 scores) in 11 matches during October. The 11th was against Penn State Brandywine in the PSUAC tournament semifinals at Rec Hall on the Penn State main campus in State College.
Then came the rematch with York, which wasn’t much of a match. The Lady Lions rolled to a 3-0 victory, winning by scores of 25-13, 25-20 and 25-19 to win its first conference title since 2003.
Nine days after winning the conference crown, November got even sweeter for Mont Alto at the USCAA Division II national tournament at Virginia Beach, Virginia.
It probably wasn’t lost in the Lady Lions, as well as their competition, that Mont Alto reached the national championship match a year ago.
First came a 3-0 win against Johnson & Wales. The Lady Lions coasted to wins of 25-17 and 25-13 before finally breaking a sweat in the third set, a 26-24 win that advanced Mont Alto to the second match in Pool play against Paul Smith’s College. Mont Alto was even more dominant in this match than in the previous one, winning in three sets by scores of 25-10, 25-19 and 25-14.
The win advanced the Lady Lions to the national semifinals against the team that beat them in last year’s title match – Cincinnati Clermont. If there was pressure, Mont Alto didn’t show it, as the Lions swept Clermont 25-18, 25-21 and 25-14 to secure their place in a second consecutive title match.
“I told them they’d better be ready,” Hood said of facing York for the third time in a season. “They’re going to come at you with everything they had. I told them how hard it is to beat a team three times in one season.”
Mont Alto dropped the first set 26-24.
“That was the first time that happened since Gettysburg,” said Hood. “I put the challenge out to them, especially in the fourth set when we were pulling away and they tied.”
Mont Alto tied the match with a 25-22 win in the second set and took control in the third set with a 25-14 win.
“The pressure was really on us,” Hood said. “We had to beat them three times; we handled them pretty easily in the conference championship.”
Mont Alto took a 9-3 lead in the fourth set, but York battled back to lead 17-16 and then tied it at 20-20. The jubilation that was about to erupt came closer as the Lions took four of the next five points. Gooding notched the final kill, and Penn State Mont Alto erupted into celebration with players and coaches alike embracing in hugs and jubilation.
“The jubilation took over pretty quickly,” Hood said. “When we went up two sets to one, I started feeling pretty good. They’re a great program and coached really well.”
“We demolished records at the USCAA nationals. Our setter (Kylie Denlinger) broke the record for sets in a three-set match. Her sister (Brooke) destroyed a record.
“With Gracie (Vaughn) taking that kills record at nationals, I was very pleased for her. She works very hard. We lost three very good kids last year. We were able to reload with freshmen and a transfer.”
For her part, Vaughn was named tournament Most Valuable Player after recording 22 kills in the title match. Kylie and Brooke Denlinger were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Mont Alto won 21 of 23 sets during their 7-0 run in the playoffs dating back to the PSUAC tournament.
The 2022-23 roster: Brooke Denlinger (libero), Aspyn Keech (setter), Candace Newman (libero), Clara Geesaman (outside hitter), Katie Sinks (setter), Zoey McCormack (defensive specialist), Kylie Denlinger (setter), Leslie Huckle (outside hitter), Kylee Gooding (outside hitter), Caroline Bickley (middle hitter), Gabby Baughman (defensive specialist), Candice Baum (outside hitter), Shanez Morales (outside hitter), Gracie Vaughn (middle hitter), Mackenzie Ginder (middle hitter), Abigail Wagner (outside hitter).