GA junior tri-captain Erin Lindahl focuses on a forearm pass during last week’s PAIS championship match. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

GA junior tri-captain Erin Lindahl focuses on a forearm pass during last week’s PAIS championship match. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

The Germantown Academy girls got another step closer this fall. In 2013, the Patriots’ volleyball team finished third in the Inter-Ac League, and made it to the semifinals of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools tournament.

This season, they moved ahead of Agnes Irwin to become the Inter-Ac runner-up, and then GA continued on to reach the 2014 PAIS championship match. They couldn’t quite take that final step to the Indy Schools title, though, falling to Inter-Ac champ Academy of Notre Dame, 3-0, in a bout played last Thursday on a neutral court at Baldwin School.

As disappointing as the final setback was the fact that GA didn’t play up to its usual standards for much of the match. Keeping pace with the Irish through the middle of the opening set, the Pats then stalled out and lost, 25-15. With one of their tri-captains going down with an injury in the second set, GA fell 25-9, and although the Patriots played their best volleyball of the afternoon in the third round, Notre Dame prevailed 25-20 to repeat as PAIS champ.

It was only the fourth year for an Indy Schools tournament in volleyball; Agnes Irwin captured the first two championships in 2011 and 2012. Notre Dame broke through to win last fall, and this year their four senior starters were determined to go out as champions. The young GA squad had no seniors on its roster at all.

“I think one thing Notre Dame had going for them is the fact that they’ve had the experience of being in the championship game before,” said GA junior outside hitter Carly Pruitt, who is a Patriot team captain along with classmates Erin Lindahl (libero) and Grace Polisano (outside). “Having those seniors on the court helped them.”

Still, the Patriots progressed as a program this fall, getting over the hump to finish ahead of longtime power Agnes Irwin. GA topped the Owls in their regular-season matches, 3-0, 3-2, and wrapped up second place in the league with a 6-2 record (league members Penn Charter and Episcopal Academy do not participate in the sport).

The Pats were then able to knock off Irwin a third time, winning their PAIS semifinal clash by a 3-1 score on November 4. Notre Dame was the only team to defeat Germantown all season, with last week’s tournament win and two regular-season victories over the Pats, who finished 16-3 overall. The Irish (17-4 overall) staged a 3-0 sweep in their Indy Schools semifinal tilt against Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

Notre Dame senior outside Cassie Palumbo, a force at the net throughout last Thursday’s championship match, chalked up her first two kills as Notre Dame jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the opening set.

“It took us awhile to get things going,” commented GA head coach Dan Sullivan. “Credit Notre Dame; they were prepared and they played well. They’d been in the championship game before, and they won a tough one against Agnes Irwin last year.”

Palumbo and most of the other Notre Dame seniors haven’t finalized their college plans, although setter Cori Cichowicz has decided that she’ll continue her volleyball career at Ursinus College, according to Irish head coach Mike Sheridan.

Getting a couple blocks and a scoring tip by Pruitt, GA got back in contention in the first set, but was unable to take the lead. Fairly deep into the set, the Pat were still just two points down, at 16-14. After that, though, the Irish clamped down on defense and ended the segment with a 9-1 surge. Palumbo secured set point by whacking the ball into a clump of three GA players in the middle of the court; none of them were able to make solid contact, and the ball hit the deck.

Some of the Patriots’ blocks were effective, but many times the blockers seemed to be a little out of position, and when the ball was driven into their outstretched arms, it stayed on Germantown’s side of the net.

Pocketing the first set, Notre Dame didn’t let up, and the Irish were already ahead 11-2 in the second frame when one of GA’s principal players was hurt.

Hitters and blockers rose up for a play at the net, and when the ball dropped to the court, Grace Polisano came down awkwardly on top of it. She let out a yelp, grabbed her right ankle, and then slapped the floor in frustration. She retired to the bench and Notre Dame continued on to win 25-9, going up 2-0 in the match.

A number of times over the course of the afternoon, GA digs sent the ball straight up into the maze of beams and utility fixtures near the roof of the Baldwin gym. The Patriots did a good job of tracking the ball, and most times were able to successfully play it when it descended. In some more straightforward situations, though, players sometimes hesitated in going to the ball, and teammates got their signals crossed. This led to balls hitting the floor, and points lost.

Across the net, the Irish played with discipline, keeping their shape under pressure and not allowing open spaces to form on the court.

However, it was GA that was the aggressor as the third set got underway. The Patriots never got far in front, but they held a number of two-point leads up until the score reached 9-7. Polisano, with her rolled ankle now taped up, did not start the game, but before long she insisted that she be put back out on the floor.

The Irish ran off four straight points to go up by two, but then committed a double hit. GA’s Cat Polisano (Grace’s freshman sister) put the ball in play from the service line, and when Notre Dame hit it into the net, the set was tied for a final time at 11-all.

Three consecutive points moved Notre Dame ahead for good, but Germantown stayed close behind as sophomore Abby Starzecky, freshman Jenna Schumann, and the Polisano sisters all registered kills. It was still a one-point affair at 21-20, then Notre Dame strung together the four points needed for a set and match victory. Match point came on a serve by Cichowicz that GA was unable to return in play.

Asked where the Patriots needed to improve in order to take that last step to a title, Sullivan said, “The consistency needs to be there – that’s probably the biggest thing. This year, you couldn’t always be sure which team would show up in the first set every night. It was like rolling the dice, but I think that’ll change with maturity.”

Pruitt noted that the squad needs to avoid lapses that let opponents string together three or four points at a time.

“We need to take care of the little details, like where to cover, and making sure we really close our blocks,” she said. “I think the way this match ended will make us more determined to get that winner’s plaque next year.”