In the final match for two Mount St. Joe seniors, libero Corinne Filograna executes a forearm pass while Mallory Baus looks on. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

In each of the last two sets in last Monday’s PIAA District 1 volleyball semifinal, host Mount St. Joseph Academy was just a point or two away from a trip to the state tournament.

Only the two finalists would be making that trip, and the Magic, seeded second in the district’s Class AA tournament, needed two points to punch their ticket in the fourth set, when they gained 23-22 edge while leading 2-1 in the match. Visiting Pope John Paul II High School, seeded third, came back to win that round, 25-23, forcing a fifth set in which the winner only had to be the first team to reach 15 points.

Here, the Mounties put themselves in a commanding position, with a 14-11 advantage setting them up with what would be called a triple match point in tennis. Once again, the PJP Panthers rallied, scoring five straight points to win the set, 16-14, and the match, 3-2.

“The girls did everything I asked them to during the time-outs,” stated first-year head coach Amy Bergin, whose squad rolled up the net for the final time with an overall record of 17-7, and finished third within the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies with a mark of 10-4.

After dispatching seventh-seeded Penncrest High School in the opening round of Districts on October 25, the Mount knew that last week’s semifinal bout would be a tough match. Pope John Paul brought in an overall record of 15-4, and they’d lost a 3-2 non-league match with 2017 AACA champion Merion Mercy.

The large group of travelling PJP fans that squeezed into the Mount gym saw their team jump out in front, 7-2, in the opening set. Although the Magic caught up at 10-10, another run by the visitors gave them a daunting 19-11 lead, and they went on to win the opening frame, 25-18.

Two defensive problems had hindered the Mounties; they hadn’t blocked well at the net, and they hadn’t filled in behind the front row to keep the Panthers from scoring on tips.

Coach Bergin helped her players address those issues.

“I’ve seen how quickly this team can morph and pick up on things once they’re brought to their attention,” she related. “They started to read and anticipate. Their volleyball IQ is advanced well beyond their years.”

Early in the second set, PJP had to call a time-out when a kill by senior Cassidy Abdalla and a scoring block by junior Megan McGettigan helped the hosts go up 7-4. After their guests drew even at 13-13, it was the Magic who needed a time-out later on when the Panthers pushed ahead, 20-17.

A hit by junior Summer Adamson and a tip by senior Ailene Woznicki sparked the Mount to assume a 23-21 advantage, but the Panthers leveled the scoreboard at 24-24. They would give back a point through one of the many service errors in the match, then an extended rally that featured an impressive dig by senior libero Corinne Filograna ended with a kill shot by Abdalla for a 26-24 Mount St. Joe win.

Senior Cassidy Adballa (rear, left) and sophomore Olivia Nace throw up a successful block for the Mount. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

The teams continued neck-and-neck, with a 14-14 tie in the middle of the third set and then a 20-19 PJP edge a few minutes later. After Woznicki scored for a Mount side-out, the Panthers belted a hit out over the baseline, and then a kill by sophomore Kelly Rothenberg forced a Panthers time-out with the MSJ squad now ahead, 22-20.

The count seesawed to 23-21 as each team committed a service error. The visitors got back within one point on a kill by outside hitter Mary Kate Mooney, one of the two seniors on the PJP roster. Next, the Mount’s Abdalla hit the ball into a block and it dropped onto Pope John Paul’s court, bringing up set point. The Magic sealed the 25-22 win with another Abdalla hit that struck a PJP barrier; this time the blocked ball came back across the net and fell to the floor outside the left sideline.

Ahead 2-1 in the match, Mount St. Joe built a 12-9 lead in the fourth frame, then saw the Panthers come back and inch ahead, 22-21. A tip by Woznicki evened it up, and a kill by Adamson got the home team to 23-22, just two points away from the overall victory.

The Magic quickly found themselves trailing by a point, as PJP came up with kills from junior right side Caitlin Gillinger and from Mooney. On the next sequence, the Mount hit the ball into the net, and was forced to go on into a fifth set.

Coach Bergin was using a lot of her roster in the contest. In addition to varsity regulars such as Filograna’s twin sister, Elena, fellow senior Mallory Baus and sophomore Maggie Fitzpatrick, the coach has been giving time to young hitters like sophomore Olivia Nace and freshman Vivianna Carrasco.

On some occasions late in the match, there were no MSJ seniors at the net.

As Bergin remarked, “I was thinking, ‘My front line is all underclassmen now, this is the Mount future. They’re going to be the future seniors and juniors; let’s see what they come up with.”

The Magic put themselves in a good position as set five unfolded. At 11-6, they were four points from their objective and five ahead of the Panthers. Abdalla recorded what would be the last two kills of her Mount St. Joseph career, but they came in the middle of a 5-2 surge by PJP that closed the score up to 13-11.

No worries – the Panthers sent their next serve into the net to get the Mount to match point at 14-11. However, a hit and a tip by Pope John Paul made it a one-point affair, and the Magic huddled during a time-out. The visitors again stayed alive after a long rally that included two superb digs by Corinne Filograna but ended with an MSJ hit out over the right sideline.

It was now 14-14, and PJP moved ahead when junior hitter Madeline Mulcahey scored off a Mount block. As in the fourth set, the Magic hit the ball into the net for the deciding point, and their season was over. Buoyed by this comeback win, Pope John Paul would go on to sweep Merion Mercy, 3-0, in the district championship match.

Although her squad came up just a few points short at the end, Coach Bergin was encouraged overall in her first season at Mount St. Joe’s.

“Success is understood, and success is contagious; that’s the atmosphere that surrounds athletics at the Mount,” she said.

She noted that the program’s transition to her leadership was made much easier by the leadership of a talented senior class.

“The seniors were each unique; even the identical twins were totally different people,” she said, noting that one of the lessons they passed on to the younger players was “practice is serious, and games are serious, but we can still have fun.”

Bergin related, “One thing that I told the girls – and they bought into it – is that every time you touch the ball, it’s a chance to get better.”