Northeastern boys' volleyball coach Matt Wilson issued one decree before the state semifinals.
"Smile and have some fun," he said.
This, the coach thought, might be taken for granted. The Bobcats will pursue their third straight PIAA Class AA championship Saturday morning at Penn State's Recreational Hall when they face Saegertown at 11 a.m. in State College.
Back-to-back state titles are not rare in Pennsylvania. But three straight? Only four schools have accomplished that feat — and one no longer exists.
"I don't even know if we know how special this run is yet," Wilson said.
Hempfield coach Mike Vogel might.
His team took the floor Tuesday night at Exeter just after the Bobcats secured their spot in Saturday's AA final. Before Northeastern went back-to-back in 2014, Vogel's program was the last to repeat. It owns eight state crowns since 1996.
From 2001 to '07, Hempfield won six times.
"Each one, they get harder and harder," Vogel said. "Except for Northeastern. He's going to win it. That's just the way it is."
Vogel sees similarities between this Northeastern program and his Hempfield teams of the previous decade. Both had an Ohio State recruit on the roster. Vogel had Shawn Sangrey. A 6-foot-5 left-handed opposite hitter on the Black Knights' last two title teams, Sangrey made three all-state teams.
By his senior year, nearly all of the Hempfield offense ended with Sangrey.
"If you're not setting it to him, you're not setting," Vogel said he told his setter in 2008.
Wilson has Reese Devilbiss, a 6-3 junior already with two PIAA gold medals and all-state selections.
"It's a shame he's not 6-5," Vogel said. "He broad jumps into the ball. They push the ball out in front of him so he can subconsciously see the block."
The Hempfield coach kind of knew this was coming with Northeastern.
His son, Gary Vogel, played libero amid Hempfield's mid-2000s run. The younger Vogel went on to Penn State with two high school teammates, but he returned to the area and helped at beach volleyball camps in York.
That's where Gary Vogel spotted a slew of junior high kids from Northeastern.
"They remind me of us," he told his father, Mike.
The group included current junior Chris Lee, who still raves about Vogel's lessons. Like him, Lee became a libero. The position requires knee pads for diving across wooden floors.
Lee acknowledged the sand courts were different, but the experience was vital for a group just getting into the sport.
"It was more of the doubles game, but I think he helped all of us improve," Lee said.
The sand courts bridged a piece of Hempfield's dynasty to what is building at Northeastern. Saegertown will try to tear that down this weekend.
The Panthers, champions of District 10 in northwest Pennsylvania, entered this season as the state's top-ranked team in Class AA. Northeastern was second and traveled there to open its season.
A series of dominating performances swayed the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association to flip the two teams. Since then, Northeastern has remained first and Saegertown second.
"I would say we were almost 100 percent sure we'd meet up again in the finals," Lee said.
For good measure, Northeastern tacked on two more games when they met at the Bobcats' 40-team invitational. Collectively, Saegertown is winless in six sets against Northeastern.
Fazed? Unlikely. Saegertown has thumped along fine the rest of the season. It enters with a 16-2 record in traditional matches — not counting in-season tournaments — and including Tuesday's state semifinal sweep of District 7's Obama Academy. There, senior Alex Barclay confirmed to the Meadville Tribune his team wanted another shot at Northeastern.
"To get back to the state finals and play them," he said.
Saegertown makes its second PIAA championship appearance in five years. It's the third appearance for Northeastern's junior class, which has the chance to reach the final four straight years after trickling into Wilson's 2013 lineup.
"At some point, this all comes to an end," Wilson said. "I don't know when, but hopefully it's not Saturday."
Contact Matt Goul at 771-2045.
Including the current run by Northeastern, Pennsylvania has seen consecutive boys' volleyball champions 13 times. They are:
Northeastern: 2014, 2013
Hempfield: 2007, 2006
Hempfield: 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001
Hempfield: 1996, 1997
Northeastern: 1993, 1992
Haverford: 1971, 1970, 1969, 1968, 1967, 1966
Homestead: 1962, 1961
Monessen: 1960, 1959
Homestead: 1955, 1954
Peabody: 1952, 1951, 1950, 1949
Homestead: 1948, 1947
Peabody: 1946, 1945, 1944, 1943, 1942
Westinghouse: 1939, 1938, 1937, 1936
If you go
Northeastern will try for its third consecutive PIAA Class AA championship on Saturday morning.
Who: District 3 champion Northeastern vs. District 10 champion Saegertown
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Penn State's Rec Hall, State College
Follow live: Get live, multimedia updates from the championship match at GameTimePA.com.