Germantown Academy head coach Chris Chung (left background) looks on as junior Natalie Schildt executes a pass. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

If you’re a top contender in volleyball in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association, you may well defeat a number of accomplished rivals and make it almost all the way through the season unscathed.

When it gets around playoff time, though, those troublesome Irish of the Academy of Notre Dame always seem to rear their heads.

This fall, the Patriots of Germantown Academy overcame both Inter-Ac League and non-league opponents to build a 15-0 record with only two weeks left in the season. After knocking off Notre Dame the first time the teams played, GA then suffered a 3-1 setback in the Inter-Ac rematch on Oct. 23.

Finishing out the regular season by completing a sweep of Baldwin School, the Pats emerged as co-champions of the league along with the Irish.

In a small 2019 PAISAA tournament bracket, both teams rolled through to the finals without losing a set. They then met in the championship game last Friday on a neutral court at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

As the teams battled back and forth furiously, the outcome of every set was in doubt right up until the end, but Notre Dame prevailed in each one by a score of 25-23, claiming its seventh consecutive Indy Schools title.

Although GA juniors Becca Booth and Natalie Schildt came out swinging for some early kills, GA slipped behind 9-4 in the opening set before calling timeout. Over the next few minutes, the Patriots kept themselves from falling out of contention entirely, but their situation became perilous once more when the Irish assumed an 18-12 lead. Schildt scored two kills in a row, and then two serves by senior setter Caitlyn Priore went unreturned as the tally tightened to 18-16.

Soon after that, freshman Fiona McKenna sent the ball to the floor to get Germantown within a point of the leaders at 19-18, and the scoreboard leveled out a few minutes later at 22-all. The Irish put the Patriots’ backs to the wall by scoring on a block and on a sinking serve by libero Maddie Donaphon (who will play for Northeastern University) that made it 24-22.

Although a subsequent hit by Schildt wasn’t one of her hardest, her ball seemed to confuse the Irish and it dropped to the middle of the court. This returned the service to GA at 23-24, but the Patriot serve propelled the ball out over the baseline for set point.

Patriots junior Becca Booth lets loose on the ball from the middle spot. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Junior Colleen Gibbons was tabbed to put the ball in play for the Patriots to open the second set, and one of her sinking serves, along with kills by Schildt and Priore, helped the Pats get out to a 5-1 lead. The score climbed to 8-4, then the Irish rode Marissa Bruno’s service to an 8-8 tie. Not much separated the two sides from then on, as the count climbed to 16-16 and then to 21-21.

Notre Dame’s Sara McDougall scored with a hit off the hands of GA blockers, but the next Irish serve sailed long. The Patriots erased the AND error with one of their own, slapping the ball into the net for a 23-22 tally that favored their opponents.

Notre Dame’s big senior hitter, North Carolina State University recruit Riley Shaak, ended the next three rallies with hits. The first went cross-court from outside left to score, but the next one just missed the right rear corner on the Germantown side. Her next swing won the set for Notre Dame, and Germantown was down 0-2 in the match.

As the third set got going, GA climbed up out of a 3-3 tie and soon the Irish had to call timeout with the scoreboard showing a 9-5 Patriot lead. There was some debate involving the fact that Notre Dame had actually scored only four points at that stage, so it was just as well that sets must be won by two points.

Still, it wasn’t long before the Irish caught up and then pulled ahead, 17-14. A hit by McKenna and a scoring tip by Priore helped Germantown get moving again, and a kill by Schildt leveled things off at 18-18. The score seesawed to 22-22 as the teams headed for a tight finish once more.

Notre Dame dug out what seemed like a sure kill by Schildt, and after the ball crossed the net a few more times, Shaak finished for the Irish. They gave that point right back to GA with a hit out over the baseline, making it 23-all. A hit by Shaak brought up game point at 24-23, and after a Patriot timeout, AND’s Donaphon put the ball in play.

For a second, it looked like a swing by Priore would tie things up once more, but the Irish came up with another impressive dig off the hardwood. The next big belt by GA powered the ball out of bounds across the baseline, and Notre Dame had added to its string of Independent Schools titles.

For GA, Schildt registered 25 kills and 13 digs and Priore had 29 assists, nine digs and three blocks. Senior Kelli Ramer and McKenna (four kills) logged 12 digs and nine digs, respectively, and Booth was credited with five kills and two blocks.