Germantown Academy players gather together to celebrate after securing match point in last Friday’s five-set volleyball battle with Agnes Irwin. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Germantown Academy players gather together to celebrate after securing match point in last Friday’s five-set volleyball battle with Agnes Irwin. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Coming into last Friday’s home court volleyball match, all of the victories in Germantown Academy’s 11-2 overall record had come in three straight games. This would be a different kind of contest altogether.

At the end of September, GA had claimed a 3-0 road victory over Inter-Ac League rival Agnes Irwin, but in Friday’s rematch the visiting Owls put the Patriots on their heels, winning the first two sets in the best-of-five affair, 25-16, 25-17.

Asserting themselves late in the third set, the Pats scored 10 of the last 11 points for a momentum-shifting 25-15 win, and they went on to tie the match with a 25-13 performance in the fourth stanza. In the truncated fifth game (first team to 15 points wins), GA fell behind early, but came back to triumph, 15-11, completing an impressive comeback for a 5-2 record in the league.

“It was our first five-game match, but we’ve been lifting and staying in shape, so we were able to pull through,” explained junior outside hitter Grace Polisano. “We’re such a close-knit team that when we lose a few points we know how to pick each other up and stay mentally tough.”

Commenting on the early 0-2 deficit, GA head coach Dan Sullivan admitted, “It was a concern, how they would respond in that situation, but they gathered themselves together. We were not fundamentally sound in those first two sets, and Agnes Irwin played very well. We really just needed to refocus, keep things simple, and execute the basics.”

With all of their matches against the other two top title contenders now behind them, the Patriots will most likely finish second in the Inter-Ac, one place ahead of last year.

Undefeated Notre Dame knocked off GA in September and in early October (3-0, 3-1), while Irwin’s chances to share second place probably went by the boards with Friday’s setback, which sent the Owls home with a record of 4-3 in the league and 7-4 overall.

Scoring the first five points of last Friday’s encounter, the Owls would go on to lead throughout the first set. The Patriots called time-outs when down 4-11 and then 10-20, but they just couldn’t get any traction and lost by nine.

“It was almost like we were a little too relaxed at first,” related Polisano, who is a team tri-captain along with classmates Erin Lindahl (libero) and Carly Pruitt (outside). Once we focused and cleaned it up, we were okay in the last three games.”

Polisano’s freshman sister, Cat, is a setter for the Patriots, and the other principal players in Friday’s contest were junior blocker/hitter Diana Ingham, and sophomore middle blockers Emma Rapp and Abby Starzecky.

The home team’s prospects looked brighter in the second round up until the middle of the set, when they were ahead 11-9. The Owls took over the lead with a 6-0 run, and GA called time-out with the count at 11-15.

“What I told them in the time-out was that we might not win this set, but I wanted to see them start playing better right now, and hopefully it would carry over to the third set. That’s pretty much what happened.”

Still, Irwin won the second by eight points, and GA was in an 0-2 hole.

In the early stages of the match, some of the Patriots’ hits had gone straight into Owls blocks, while others sailed out over the baseline. Serving was not always consistent, and errors in this area also hampered the team’s attempts to rally.

“Our coach told Carly and I to find the holes on the outside, and to recognize when to tip and when to hit,” Grace Polisano said. “They had the lines covered, so we started to hit across more.”

Although the third set proved to be the turning point in the match, Irwin was just one point behind the Patriots more than halfway through the segment, with the score 15-14 and the Owls serving. A kill by Polisano got the side-out for GA, then sophomore middle Emma Rapp presided at the service line as the Pats rattled off seven more points to lead it 23-14.

Five of Rapp’s serves during this spree were not returned by Irwin, and the other two points came on kills by Polisano. Germantown had to work doggedly for the last point of the 8-0 run, as defenders on both teams flung themselves around with abandon to come up with some superb digs.

“It was just an exciting match to watch,” Sullivan said. “Girls on both sides of the net were hustling, getting balls up that you were sure were down.”

In the same vein, Polisano remarked later, “Irwin has great defenders, and playing them definitely helps us get better.”

Two points away from losing the third set, the Owls recorded a kill to get the ball back, but then served it out over the right sideline. When Polisano pounded the ball into an AI block, it went out of bounds at the right post and GA won the set at 25-15.

A few minutes into set four, the Owls were serving with a 7-6 edge. After a hit by Polisano evened it up, Irwin committed three errors in a row. A block by GA sophomore Abby Starzecky, a kill and a scoring tip by Polisano, and the hosts found themselves up by half-a-dozen, 13-7. The Patriots gave up a point with a serving error, but then went on another tear, this one a 6-0 burst featuring two kills by Pruitt.

Irwin picked up three-in-a-row to make it 19-11, but GA only gave up two more points after that, proceeding to a 25-13 victory that was sealed with a block by Rapp.

In the 15-point fifth set of a match, a quick start is desirable. On Cat Polisano’s opening serve the ball snaked along the tape at the top of the net and then dropped to the floor. Her second attempt was mishandled by Irwin, giving the home team a 2-0 foothold, but the visitors stormed back with six consecutive points. A rip by Rapp stopped GA’s slide, and slowly the Pats worked their way back to a 7-7 tie.

GA’s Lindahl denied Irwin a point with an impressive dig, and instead the sequence ended with a kill by Pruitt. A net violation by the hosts leveled the score for the final time, 8-8. With a couple kills by Grace Polisano and a tip by sister Cat, Germantown gained a small but important 12-9 advantage.

The teams then traded a few points, with GA getting two kills by Pruitt to bring up match point at 14-11. Next, an Owl outside hitter drove the ball into a block formed by Rapp and Pruitt alongside GA’s right post. Rapp got most of the ball, which fell back on the far side of the net, touching off a raucous Patriot celebration.

When teams face the type of adversity that the Patriots did when they were down two sets, it’s always helpful to have a core of seniors to provide veteran guidance. However, GA doesn’t have a single senior on its roster this year.

That has never worried Sullivan, who explained, “Our three captains, Carly, Grace and Erin, have a wealth of experience on the volleyball court, both here and with their club teams. When you have leaders like that, it doesn’t matter that they’re still only juniors.”