CONCORD >> With the sand rapidly falling through the hourglass off his team’s season last Saturday, Mark Clark searched his bench for an answer.
Down two sets to Baldwin, Clark’s Garnet Valley was staring into the abyss in the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals at Chambersburg High School. The fifth seed from District 1 needed a spark, and quickly.
So Clark, as has become a distinguishing luxury of his Jaguars, summoned another of his seniors, Cassidy Gallagher, to plug into an outside hitter spot in an attempt to swing the momentum.
Gallagher rose to the occasion, helping orchestrate an epic turnaround for a five-set victory, a microcosm of the Jaguars’ unlikely run to this Saturday’s PIAA final. That Gallagher — with a senior’s savvy, poise and a touch of desperation — loomed so large isn’t a coincidence of age.
“At that point, I just have to become a selfless player,” Gallagher said Thursday. “I wasn’t playing so that I could do well, but I really wanted the team to win. For me, it’s about winning for them, not for myself.
“I just knew how hard they worked during that game and throughout this whole season, and I’m just so honored to play with these ladies. And I really knew that they needed me in that moment so I brought it for them.”
Veteran leadership and team cohesion can seem like tired motifs this late in the fall. But there’s no getting around the reality for Garnet Valley: They wouldn’t be tangling with defending champ Parkland in Saturday’s final (5 p.m., Richland H.S.) without the inspirational corps of nine seniors.
It’s an extraordinary number for Clark, who only has 12 full varsity roster spots and has never before carried more than seven seniors. But the depth of skill and the additive benefit they present, the way the players lift their teammates and extract the best from one another, is invaluable.
“We’re all really dedicated to the sport and we all really want to play well for each other and obviously go as far as we can,” senior libero Lizzie Herestofa said. “We all have so much fun playing together, and just the sport in general, so I think that the way we all have bonded has really helped that, too. We’re all really great friends, and we all want to push each other to do better.”
“I know that they believe in me so I can really believe in myself,” Gallagher said. “That’s where the chemistry comes in. I would not be the player I am today if it was not for these girls by my side.”
In practical terms, the prevalence of seniors has informed the Jags’ even spread of attacking numbers. On any given day, outsider hitters Gallagher, Sydney Portale or Sekai Kaminski can deliver double-digit kills, while middles Nicole Loan and Julianne Hurley efficiently blend defense and attack. The Jags have the setting guile of Gabby Davis, plus the back-row defensive instincts of Herestofa, Meagan Scott and Jessi Gourdier.
The bonds between them are the product of years as teammates. Many of the Jags share club teams, and their school roots trace back to seventh or eighth grade.
“I think that we all just want to play for each other and we all want to win for each other,” said Davis, who will join Portale and Herestofa at Susquehanna University next year. “We’ve made it this far, so nobody wants to let it stop now. … We all know each other so well, and the fact that we know how each other plays and we know how to help each other out on the court, I think that contributes so much to us winning.”
“The bond and the chemistry we have, it’s just bigger than the game itself,” Gallagher said. “They’re my motivation every day. We motivate each other, and that’s why we are the team we are. We love each other, and that goes into our love for the game.”
A journey as unique as Garnet Valley’s couldn’t have sprung from anything less than a special group. The unbeaten Central League champions drew the third seed in the District 1 tournament, only to be bounced by No. 6 Council Rock North in straight sets in the quarterfinals on home court. They battled through playbacks against Upper Merion and Avon Grove (to which they’d lost earlier in the season) to secure the district’s fifth and final states bid.
The reward was a westerly states route, pitting them against the champions of Districts 3 and 6 and District 7 runner-up Baldwin.
Tuesday’s semifinal win, a five-set classic with previously unbeaten District 6 champ State College, was the Jags’ fifth consecutive elimination game.
After staving off their journey’s potential end for so long, the Jags know Saturday will be it. It’s a juncture of the season that Clark said none of his players listed as among the realistic goals set in the preseason.
But it’s a challenge they’re ready to tackle … together.
“I know there’s going to be a ton of emotions, pride and anxiety and nerves,” Hurley said. “But I think we’ll all come together and do what we have to do.”
“I think we’re just going to use those emotions to drive us,” Scott said. “We’ve played every single game in the state tournament as our last. Now that we know it’s our last, everything’s coming out.”