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Pope John Paul II secures spot in district final, states with win over Merion Mercy

UPPER PROVIDENCE >> An unflappable family.

That’s how the Pope John Paul II girls see themselves … and how they come across to opponents in District One. Both traits were on display Tuesday, when the Golden Panthers sealed their bid for another appearance in the district’s championship game — and a berth in the state tournament — with a 3-0 sweep of Merion Mercy Academy.

PJP, top seed in District One’s Class AAA bracket, validated its lofty standing with set scores of 25-18, 25-13 and 25-19. But it was tested in the second and third sets by a Golden Bear unit that started out building big leads, only to see the Panthers (26-4-3) rally down the stretch to send them home one win short of what PJP has secured numerous times in recent years.

“We’re so comfortable together,” senior Alana Pergine said after the Panthers put themselves into Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. title game at Harriton. They will face Gwynedd Mercy, a 3-1 winner over Mount St. Joseph in Tuesday’s other 1-AAA semifinal.

But it required a concerted effort in the last two sets to keep the quest intact. The fourth-seeded Bears (17-8-1) opened a 6-2 lead at the start of the second, and a 6-1 advantage in the third, to contest PJP’s designs on a sweep.

“We basically needed to get our act together,” Alyssa Cianciulli, another of the Golden Panthers’ eight seniors, said. “We knew if we broke down in service, the whole thing could get lost.”

Instead, they went on runs that upended Merion’s fortunes. They reversed the second-set deficit to a 13-12 lead, then pulled away with a 12-1 sprint to the winning outcome. In the third set, the Panthers turned around for a 13-13 tie before going on a 12-5 roll — highlighted by a five-point sprint to the finish and another four-point burst.

“We had to grind it out a bit,” PJP head coach Ryan Sell said. “I told the kids if they could stay close, we’d be all right. I’m glad the kids hung in there.”

Of particular concern for the Golden Panthers was the Bears’ senior Allison Stranick, a force on the front line whose third-touch smashes kept the locals on their toes. Another was junior Makenna Hallager, back from injury.

“They (coaches) had me take one step to the right,” Cianciulli said of the strategy for Stranick’s hard hits. “We had to come out and play hard to get back in the district championship game, and make this year going to states.”

Pergine and Alina Ralston each had nine kills behind Mary Kate Mooney, who led the way for PJP with 10 kills. Cianciulli, in turn, registered 22 digs.

“We’re like family,” Pergine said. “We don’t get mad at each other.”

Myah Cordrey chipped in with eight kills and nine service points, and Mooney had another seven points. Hayley Wusinich contributed 39 assists and nine service points.

NOTES >> PJP extended its current winning streak to 17 matches, since a 1-1 tie with Bethlehem Liberty on Sept. 17. In that span, the Panthers have outscored the opposition by a combined 48-1. … The locals previously played Merion Mercy on Oct. 1, scoring a 3-0 win. Set scores were 25-23, 25-15 and 25-12. … The Panthers have not played Gwynedd Mercy yet this year. … In its semifinal, GMA dropped the first set to MSJ 25-18, then ran the table by set scores of 25-23, 25-18 and 25-17.

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