By NEIL GEOGHEGAN
DOWNINGTOWN – It was one of those rare instances in athletics when the head coaches from both sides came away feeling pretty darn good.
Of course, Bishop Shanahan’s Greg Ashman was thrilled that his top-ranked volleyball squad advanced to its third straight District 1 Class AAAA final with a 3-0 triumph over visiting Downingtown West on Thursday evening. But David Parrish, who guided the Whippets to their first district semifinal ever, was a bit giddy with just how difficult his fourth-seeded squad made it for the favored Eagles.
“That was probably the biggest test we’ve had this year,” Ashman admitted. “Previously, we haven’t had to play really well to win, but tonight Downingtown West made us play.
“They were phenomenal. They played a lot better than I anticipated.”
In a complete departure from a previous regular season clash 28 days earlier, these two crosstown rivals battled for three close, contested sets. The Whippets were in each one, but the unbeaten Eagles managed to put on a spurt at end of each set to ultimately prevail, 25-23, 25-22, 25-23.
“We made (Shanahan) work hard for it,” Parrish said. “I’m not sure many people believed we are this good. Maybe tonight, we showed some people some things.”
Now 21-0 overall, Shanahan will play second-seeded Plymouth Whitemarsh for the district crown on Saturday, 6 p.m., at Upper Dublin High School. The Eagles have already made five District 1 final appearances under Ashman, and have taken home four titles, including the 2015 crown.
“We knew (Downingtown West) would come out fighting,” said Shanahan’s super freshman Cara Shultz.
“This was absolutely the best thing we couldn’t ask for: to be challenged,” Ashman added.
“West was able to compete with us at the net, which a lot of people haven’t been able to do because of our size and power. They made our hitters and setters think more.”
The Whippets fall to 17-3 overall, and will play sixth-seeded Council Rock North in the third-place match on Saturday. Downingtown West has already punched its ticket to the state tournament.
“I am very proud of the way my girls played,” Parrish said. “We basically lost by a nine or 10 point margin (in each set) the first time we played. This time we closed that margin. We are a much better team than we were a month ago.”
The Whippets served notice in the opening set that the second time around wasn’t going to be anything like the first. There were 13 ties in all, the last coming at 23-23. Bishop Shanahan, however, closed it out by forcing West into making errors on the last two points.
Set No. 2 was tied at 15-all when the Eagles went on a 7-0 run that started with back-to-back blocks by Renee Shultz and Michaela Devlin. The Whippets fought hard to stay in it, but Shanahan got late kills from Cara and Renee Shultz to make it 2-0.
“In between the second and third set, I told our kids ‘it’s not over yet. You have to be prepared to go five. These guys are going to come back,’” Ashman recalled.
And West did, roaring out to a 15-11 lead. But that’s when the Eagles staged an 8-0 surge, on the strength of two service aces from junior Ceandra Ashman and a couple blocks from Devlin.
“Ceandra had been struggling with her serve. It seemed like it was either an ace or an error,” said her father and coach. “But she did phenomenal. I’m proud of her.”
The Whippets made one last stand to regain the lead at 23-22, but Shanahan scored the final three points. Renee Shultz delivered a kill and an ace, and Alexa Marcum registered a kill on match-point.
“We are still coming together as a team and figuring it out,” said Ceandra Ashman, who finished with 18 assists.
“This match was good for us. (Shanahan) gave is a better match this time, and that’s good because it showed us how good we can be if we push ourselves.”
Downingtown West got 11 kills from Aly Reardon, six kills apiece from Sophie Gelling and Kenzie Pincura, and 17 digs from Regina Schetroma.
“(Bishop Shanahan) served us very tough in a couple rotations, and we got stuck there,” Parrish explained. “The last two (sets), the difference was that one rotation.
“We had our chances, and when you get close like that, you have to take advantage. Hopefully we’ll learn from this.”
Cara Shultz led the way for the Eagles with 17 kills, including five in the deciding set. Marcum added nine kills and Renee Shultz notched four of her seven kills in the third.
“To beat a team like (West) 3-0 is huge,” Cara Shultz said.
“From here on, every match is going to get harder and harder. If we are going to go ahead and win districts and eventually states, we are going to have to play our very best.”