WARREN - Heather Guthrie doesn't have the answer.
The Warren G. Harding volleyball coach has been around the game since she was a kid, when she watched her mom play at the YMCA. She played in high school and then at Point Park University, but she still can't figure out why her Raiders play the way they do.
"I have a group of girls who are very intelligent, on and off the floor, and they know when they're not playing to their fullest potential, and they know when they are," she said. "They understand they have to work at that, and they know that, 'OK, now we have to get serious.' That's how they play. I don't know why they do that, but that's what they do."
They did it again on Monday in a matchup against someone who also remembers those days at the Y. Harding played well, in spurts, and scored at key moments to beat Champion 3-0. The Golden Flashes are coached by Hillary Allen, Heather's sister (their maiden name is Pegg).
The Raiders (17-3) took big leads to start each of the three games, but Champion (5-15) fought back and pushed Harding, a Division I team, to the limit in Game 2. The Golden Flashes trailed 11-2, yet they battled back to within one point at several different occasions. They eventually tied things up at 24, but after a few long and intense volleys, Harding finished the game off, 27-25.
Champion's perseverance is nothing new, Allen said, nor is its inability to keep the momentum going and take the lead.
"We have a hard time capitalizing," she said. "We work really, really hard to get caught up, and then we get content. I keep telling the girls we have to keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing - a pedal-to-the-medal type thing. They get comfortable and kind of kick it into cruise instead of finishing.
"It's just something you have to grow and learn from."
The Golden Flashes trailed by eight (18-10) in Game 1, but they cut the lead to 19-16. That's when Harding turned it on, recording six of the last eight points to win, 25-18. One of the main catalysts for the Raiders was senior Sumayyah Muhammad, whose size and impressive vertical jump helped her dominate near the net. She finished with 18 kills, several of which came at pivotal points of the match.
"That's my role on the team, to get my team pumped up for the point," she said. "We often get big leads in games, but it's hard to keep it going sometimes."
The win was a tough one for Guthrie, and that's not something she says often.
"I don't like winning against her," she said. "She's the only coach I don't enjoy beating."
The two Champion grads coached together for one year at Mathews before going their separate ways. Both are in their second season at their respective school, and it's obvious they possess similar coaching styles.
"We do a lot together," said Allen, who added that they scrimmage and practice together in the offseason, "so we kind of see what each other are doing and how we're teaching it. We talk. We kind of share things."
"I learned a lot from her," Guthrie added. "She learned a lot from me, and then we took that and went with our own programs."
They each said winning the game was their main objective, but there isn't any added significance to the matchup. It's more of a friendly rivalry. Even their mom, Denise Armstrong, was there. She sat in the middle of the bleachers ("row H for Hillary and Heather," she joked), wore neutral colors and had a good time watching her daughters face off.
"It's hard to cheer for both of them," Armstrong said. "They have a love and passion for the game that they're trying to teach to their players. It's just so great to see them doing what they love. I'm real proud of them."