During last Tuesday’s District 1 quarterfinal match at Penncrest, Mount junior Jacey Abdalla (left) makes a pass as senior teammate Katie Strosser looks on anxiously. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

During last Tuesday’s District 1 quarterfinal match at Penncrest, Mount junior Jacey Abdalla (left) makes a pass as senior teammate Katie Strosser looks on anxiously. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

A total of only four points separated the Mount St. Joseph Magic from host Penncrest High School in the first two sets of last Tuesday night’s District 1 Class AAA volleyball quarterfinal match. Nevertheless that meant the 14th-seeded Mounties were in an 0-2 hole against the number six Lions in the best-of-five contest.

A lot was on the line; with District 1 being allotted four berths in the state tournament bracket, all the quarterfinal winners would automatically advance to the big show, while the losing teams would find their seasons at an end. Bouncing back from 24-26 and 23-25 defeats in the first two rounds, the Magic won the third set, 25-21, then leveled the match at 2-2 by taking the fourth frame, 25-20.

With the fifth and deciding game going to the first team to reach 15 points, there wasn’t much room for error. The Mount fell behind by a few points in the middle of the set and later trailed 9-12. They fought back within one at 13-14, but then Penncrest put the set and the match away by winning the next point.

“We played well; we weren’t even supposed to be here,” commented MSJ head coach George Trabosh, referring to the Magic’s upset of third-seeded Strath Haven High School in the round of 16. “I think with Strath Haven, they may not have played as well as they could, while we brought our best game. Penncrest is a team that’s more like us, a bit smaller and good at keeping the ball in play.”

Although the Lions were seeded eight spots higher than Mount St. Joe’s, previous results against common opponent Strath Haven indicated that this would be a tight match. The Panthers, the team the Magic topped 3-0 in the tournament, had beaten Penncrest 3-1 in a regular-season encounter.

Mount St. Joseph had finished as runner-up in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies, avenging two losses to Merion Mercy in the regular season by beating the Golden Bears in the semifinals of the AACA tournament. The Magic fell to champ Villa Maria in the league finals, then after they won their District 1 tournament opener over 19th-seeded Plymouth Whitemarsh in three straight games, they surprised Strath Haven.

Out at Penncrest in last week’s quarterfinal, a solid start up front by senior Katie Strosser, junior Courtney Kasperski, and sophomore Cassidy Abdalla got the Magic out to a 4-1 lead. Later they seemed poised to really take command of the opening set when they went up 15-9.

The hosts got right back in it with a four-point burst and eventually pulled even at 21-all. After leading for the last time at 23-22, the Mount was tied with Penncrest at 24-24, but then committed two errors as the Lions took the set, 26-24.

The Lions leapt ahead 6-2 in the second segment, then the Mounties clawed their way back to even ground at 13-13. They were up 17-16 when Penncrest stitched together three straight points and went on to maintain a narrow lead the rest of the way. On the brink of yielding set point, at 21-24, Mount St. Joe got back within one with kills by Kasperski and junior Liz Thomas, then Penncrest was pushed over the top on a hit from the middle by Jordan Schuller.

Some aspects of the game that had given the Magic problems most of the season occasionally troubled them still.

“Two things were our nemesis all season,” Trabosh explained, “serving the ball out too much and not picking up tips. We got better, but those things were still our Achilles heel.”

Penncrest made its own share of serving errors last week, but the Lions clearly had the advantage in their ability to defend against tips over the blockers, and also to score against the Mount in the same manner.

From an 18-18 tie in the third set, the Lions made a bid to bring the affair to an early conclusion, forging ahead 21-18 and forcing an MSJ time-out. In their huddle, the Magic decided they weren’t quite ready to go home. First, Penncrest cooperated by sending a hit into the net to give the Mount a side-out, and junior Jacey Abdalla rotated to the service line.

After a joint block by Strosser and senior classmate Monica Goebel made it 21-20, Thomas asserted herself, scoring on a block and then adding two more points on kills, the second one a beauty right down the sideline. The Lions called time-out, then returned to bring themselves within a point of defeat with a double-hit violation. On the next sequence, Kasperski came up with something that was in between a hit and a tip, and the hybrid shot allowed the Mounties to take the set, 25-21.

In round four, there was a short but significant stretch in the middle of the set when the visitors moved up out of a 9-9 tie to lead 14-9. A kill by Goebel for the side-out started it off and brought sophomore libero Corinne Filograna around to serve. The Lions whacked one ball out over the baseline and another one into the net, then kills by Cassidy Adballa and Kasperski put the Magic up by five.

They led by the same margin at 21-16, then a pair of put-backs by Goebel and a belt by Kasperski brought them close to securing the set, with the count now at 24-16. Penncrest showed pluck by staving off defeat with a four-point run, but the Magic nailed down the win at 25-20. To clinch the set, Strosser rose up on the right side to pound a ball that caromed off a diving Lion and out of bounds.

“Katie Strosser played out of her mind,” Coach Trabosh said.

In the fifth set, the teams were even at 6-6, then Penncrest scored three points in a row and maintained a slim lead from there on out. Behind 13-10, the Mount got a side-out when the Lions hit the ball up into the ceiling, and MSJ’s Kasperski sent across a serve that the hosts couldn’t handle, making it 13-12.

Penncrest’s Diana Balta banged out a 14th point for her squad, but Mount St. Joe stayed alive when the Lions four-hit the ball on the next sequence. An intense rally followed, with the Magic saving an apparent out-of-bounds ball at one point, but Balta finished it up with a Penncrest kill for a 15-13 final.

The Magic’s season was over, but most of the Mounties can look forward to next season, since only two everyday players are graduating.

“The chemistry on the court improved during the season,” noted Trabosh. “The best thing is that it didn’t become a grind for them – they learned to have fun.”