by Tom Utescher
When the Notre Dame volleyball team filed into Germantown Academy’s gym last Tuesday, it was the first time the host Patriots had encountered the Irish since the teams met on a neutral court last winter in the finals of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools tournament.
That was the first trip to the championship game for GA, and it showed, as a veteran Notre Dame squad dispatched the Pats in three straight games. While the Irish graduated four starters from last season, Germantown had no seniors at all on its 2014 roster, so the Patriots were the more experienced outfit in last week’s meeting.
They took the first two sets from the Irish, 25-20 and 25-11, then closed out the match 3-0 by surviving a late Notre Dame rally in the third round and winning 25-22. GA improved to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the Inter-Ac, while Notre Dame departed 7-3, 1-1.
Having every single player back from 2014 meant that the entire pack of Patriots had experienced the discomfort of last year’s PAIS final.
Senior hitter Grace Polisano, a returning starter who had gone down with an injury during that match, remarked last Tuesday, “It was a hard thing to have to remember, but we came out today and played really well with that last match in mind.”
Libero Erin Lindahl, another of GA’s five seniors, noted “We’ve been working really hard. We’re always in the weight room, and we take practice very seriously because we want to do well this year.”
“It was early in the season for such a meaningful match-up,” said Patriots skipper Dan Sullivan, who took the helm of the GA program in 2013. “We learned a lot from last year. We felt Notre Dame’s intensity in the championship game. We were a little withdrawn, and they were fired up and loud, and I think we realized that’s how the top teams are.”
Lindahl said that the Patriots wanted to bring a lot of energy into Tuesday’s match, and that started with their customary pre-game ritual, the team clap.
As Polisano related, “We clap in the locker room and we bang against the walls and we have a whole little rhythm thing that we do.”
As the match got underway, Notre Dame earned a 3-2 edge on a service ace by senior Ashley Haas, then GA began to move ahead. Polisano, an aspiring anesthesiologist, made the Irish a bit woozy with four kills from the left side. Senior Carly Pruitt and junior Emma Rapp also hammered out points, and junior Carly Shimota aced a serve through a seam on the left side as the Pats gained a 10-6 advantage.
The Irish came back within one at 12-11, then GA got some separation with a 5-0 run. Rapp started it with a scoring tip and then got together with sophomore Jenna Schumann for a successful block a few points later. The Patriots would be leading by five at 21-16, but then they coughed up some points by sending several hits out of bounds.
After a kill by visiting senior Shannon Quigley tightened the score to 22-20, Pruitt answered in kind to get the serve back for GA and for Polisano’s sister Cat, a sophomore setter. The Patriots moved to 24-20 on a block by Pruitt and Rapp, then Pruitt attacked the left side for the set-winning kill.
“We really wanted to raise our service game,” said the elder Polisano, a club volleyball player for East Coast Power who will pursue the sport at Franklin & Marshall College. “We wanted to step up our coverage on blocks, and we changed our defense to more of an inward perimeter defense so we could get to a lot of the balls we lost last year off of tips and tough blocks.”
The Pats fell behind in the second set, 6-3, but went on to outscore the visitors 22-5 the rest of the way. They took the lead at 7-6 and then forced a Notre Dame time-out at 12-7. The teams came back out and seesawed to 13-8, then GA put the visitors in a deep hole with six unanswered points.
This surge began with a Pruitt projectile for the side-out, and then Irish were unable to return a pair of Shimota serves. The other three points came on a rip by Rapp and on two balls hit out-of-bounds by the Irish.
A few minutes later, GA got a side-out on another Pruitt kill with the count now 22-11. Notre Dame looked to get the serve back on a tip down toward the right sideline, but a one-armed diving dig by Lindahl kept the ball in play. Before long, GA closed out the set, 25-11, with a tip by Grace Polisano.
“Our hitting was really sharp today and we’ve been focusing on our serve return,” said Lindahl, who will play her primary sport, basketball, at Emory University in Atlanta. Lindahl, who is considering a career as a physical therapist, lived in Georgia as a child and still has plenty of friends and family in the Peach State.
Down 0-2 in the match, the Irish would not go quietly in the third round. They fell behind 14-8, but clawed their way back into contention with the help of some skillful hits and blocks by junior Allison Hendrick. After Notre Dame got within two points of the leaders at 19-17, GA started to close in on the win at 22-19 but then served the ball over the baseline.
The Patriots couldn’t return the first two serves by Notre Dame and the score leveled out at 22-all, prompting GA to call a time-out.
Lindahl reported, “Basically the huddle was to calm our nerves so we could go out and play our game, run our rotation.”
The pause in the action also appeared to “ice” the Notre Dame server, who drove the ball into the net and bumped GA ahead, 23-22.
A hit out over the right sideline by the visitors brought up match point, and another joint blocking effort by Pruitt and Rapp sealed the deal for the Patriots. Pruitt came away with 12 kills and 12 digs for the match, while Rapp recorded three kills and eight blocks. Libero Lindahl had 13 digs, Grace Polisano had nine kills and two digs, and Cat Polisano accumulated 20 assists.
“The girls are definitely hungry this season, and just the one more year of experience has made a huge difference in their maturity as players,” Sullivan said. “You can see the big step they’ve made in their game sense, their skill set, and their whole level of play.”