by Tom Utescher
Germantown Academy’s volleyball program has been steadily climbing the independent schools mountain over the past few seasons, starting below traditional powers Agnes Irwin and Notre Dame and then overtaking the Irwin Owls last fall to finish second in both the Inter-Ac League and the Pa. Independent Schools championship tournament.
The Patriots’ goal this year was to take the final two steps to the pinnacle. They made the first major stride as they defeated defending champ Notre Dame and the rest of the Inter-Ac squads in home/away matches to claim the 2015 league title with a perfect 8-0 record.
Last Wednesday, GA was not quite able to take that last step to the PAIS summit, falling in a five-set battle to the Irish of Notre Dame.
The teams clawed their way through the first three rounds, Germantown winning the first and third, 25-22, 25-23, and Notre Dame securing the second segment, 25-23. Notre Dame appeared to pick up a little additional momentum as it won the fourth frame, 25-19, and this carried over to the truncated fifth set, where the Irish won 15-10 to capture the Indy Schools crown for the third year in a row.
It was only the second defeat this fall for the Patriots, who began their 2015 campaign with a non-league loss to PIAA member Gwynedd Mercy Academy and finished up last week with an overall record of 15-2.
The seniors on the GA roster this year were Erin Lindahl, Grace Polisano, Carly Pruitt, and Katie DePietro, and the first three have been an integral part of the program’s building process since they were freshmen.
Third-year head coach Dan Sullivan acknowledged, “They are the true pioneers. They’ve been here for four years and they’ve become the face of the program. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Polisano will continue her volleyball career at Franklin & Marshall, while Lindahl will pursue basketball at Emory University.
The PAIS tournament for volleyball is only in its fifth year. Agnes Irwin won the first two titles in 2011 and 2012, then fell to Notre Dame the following year. Last season the Irish repeated as champs, delivering a sobering 3-0 verdict against first-time finalist GA. However, the Patriots would have every one of their players back for the next go-round.
The Irish, meanwhile, graduated four starting players, but that meant they could look for improvement over the course of the 2015 season as younger athletes settled into their new roles as varsity starters.
At GA in late September, the Patriots took the Irish in three straight games, but the October rematch was much closer. Germantown won, 3-2, with a 15-13 score in the fifth game. Notre Dame, like GA, swept their home/away series against the other three Inter-Ac schools (Episcopal and Penn Charter do not participate).
In the first two rounds of the Indy Schools tournament, GA won a pair of 3-0 matches against Academy of the New Church and George School of the Friends Schools League, while Notre Dame advanced by beating Inter-Ac rivals Baldwin (3-0) and Agnes Irwin (3-1) for the third time this fall.
So it was that for the second straight year the Patriots and the Irish went on to meet for the PAIS title on a neutral court at Baldwin School.
In the lobby just outside the gym, the two Inter-Ac squads passed the league’s tallest player, 6’3” Baldwin senior hitter Danielle Hammond, who was the focus of a celebration centered around her signing a National Letter of Intent to play basketball at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The match itself started with the teams seesawing to a 6-6 score, and then Germantown Academy got away on a 6-1 run. Junior Emma Rapp’s kill for a side-out started if off, and a pair pounded by Pruitt helped the Patriots go up 12-7. The gap remained in the low to mid-single figures for some time, with GA still up five at 23-18.
Two scoring swats at the net by Irish senior Shannon Quigley powered a 4-0 spurt for the defending champs to make it 23-22, but Notre Dame then lost the set by sending two balls out over the baseline, one on a serve and one on a hit.
A three-point service by sophomore Cat Polisano (Grace’s sister) gave GA an early edge in the second frame, but the Irish regrouped, caught up at 5-5 and went on to build a four-point lead (largest of the set) at 14-10. GA got the serve back and with the younger Polisano at the baseline the Pats put up five more points.
The momentum continued to shift. The volleyballers from Villanova edged ahead, 19-18, but then two Irish errors and a Grace Polisano projectile had Germantown back up, 21-19, just four points away from taking a 2-0 lead in the match. Instead, the Irish brought GA to the brink of defeat in the set by rattling off five straight points, two on a hit and a block by Quigley and one on senior Dana Kieft’s true service ace a little inside the baseline near the left corner.
The Patriots stayed alive a little while longer thanks to a Notre Dame serving mistake and a block by Rapp, but then Irish junior Allison Hendrick hit for set point, 25-23.
While the Irish lacked GA’s pure power along the front row, they played a very disciplined match and covered the floor well on defense. They also proved much better at retrieving tipped balls than GA.
Longtime AND coach Mike Sheridan said he had charges working specifically on tip defense after giving up too many points in that manner in earlier bouts with the Patriots.
Tips, GA’s Sullivan said, “are kind of a secondary attack for us, and Notre Dame did a good job of reading when we were going to do that. I thought that our block timing was great, but they were sneaking some balls through and they were falling in holes.”
Both squads had some problems at the service line, where GA made a total of 14 errors and the Irish committed 12.
The teams were tied at 7-7 and later at 15-all in the third round, then Notre Dame made what appeared to be a pivotal push to acquire a 21-16 advantage. The lone GA point during this 6-1 Irish surge came on a kill by junior Abby Starzecky.
Notre Dame halted its own advance by sending its next serve into the net, then the Patriots hauled themselves the rest of the way back, drawing even at 22-22 as Grace Polisano made three more marks in her kill column.
Following a time-out, the Main Line lasses picked up a point on a flawed GA serve to inch ahead, 23-22.
After that, though, the Irish sank themselves with three straight hitting errors, missing the left sideline twice and the baseline once. The 25-23 victory had the Patriots one set away from the title, leading 2-1.
“Winning that set was big for us,” Sullivan remarked. “I thought we could use that and it could help get us over the hump, but Notre Dame fought right back.”
The excitement mounted for the GA players and their supporters as two Pruitt kills spawned an early 3-0 edge and the Pats then kept adding to their lead until the count reached 13-8 in set number four.
Notre Dame dug in and embarked on a 9-1 counterattack. For the most part, the Irish just doggedly kept the ball in play during this stretch; three of their points came on serves GA could not return, and three more on Patriot hitting or passing errors.
Germantown continued to struggle on offense as the tally rose from 18-14 to 24-17. The Patriots then scored two points in a row for the first time since before Notre Dame’s mid-set spree. They came on hits by Polisano and Pruitt and they got GA a little closer at 24-19, but Hendrick then finished it for the Irish with a kill from the middle spot.
In the first-to-15 fifth set, GA held its final lead in the match at 3-2. Notre Dame then put on its most forceful display at the net of the afternoon, notching eight straight points with effective attacks. In these shortened deciding sets, a 3-10 deficit is very difficult to overcome, and the Patriots just couldn’t pull it off.
Down 14-7 later on, the Pats stirred an ember of hope on their side of the fan bleachers, shaving three points off their deficit. Then the next GA serve ran out over the baseline, and the Irish won, 15-10.
“They’re very scrappy, and they get to balls that you don’t expect are going to stay up,” noted Patriots skipper Sullivan. “Credit to them; they outplayed us today.”
Pruitt and Grace Polisano posted 20 and 14 kills, respectively, while Cat Polisano compiled 38 assists and Lindahl made 10 digs. The Irish received 18 kills from Hendrick and 14 from Quigley.
Despite the departure of three senior mainstays, GA’s Sullivan feels the returning players now have the experience to serve as the foundation for the future of the franchise.
He added, “Our JV team was also the undefeated champion in the Inter-Ac, so we have a lot of good young kids coming up in the system.”