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Confident Garnet Valley’s challenge now gets a lot taller in PIAA final

CONCORD >> Sydney Portale was a sophomore in the Garnet Valley rotation the last time the Jaguars tangled with Parkland.

It was the first round of the PIAA Class AAA tournament in 2014. The Jags, District 1’s third seed, trekked to Nazareth Area High School to visit the perennial District 11 juggernaut. And it went, well …

“Have you seen the commercial where the old football team runs out and they see the big NFL players?” Portale recalled at practice Thursday. “That’s what I felt like.”

Garnet Valley senior Sekai Kaminski limbers up at a recent practice. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Garnet Valley senior Sekai Kaminski limbers up at a recent practice. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

The Vikings steamrolled Garnet Valley, 3-0, that day, the first step on a path to two straight state titles. They dominated a younger Jags squad acclimating to states tournament play, from concussing outside hitter Brianna Plush early to allowing a scant 20 points in the final two games combined.

“I remember they were really tall,” said Sekai Kaminski, the other senior to have played in that game. “And coming into this states run, I remember thinking that every team was going to be like that and it was going to be a crazy experience and we would get knocked out in the first round by some team full of giants. But I guess that’s us now.”

In two seasons, the core of Kaminski, Portale and seven fellow seniors have risen to level footing with the Parkland powerhouse, which they seek to prove Saturday afternoon at Richland High School at 5.

Parkland (24-1) has ravaged District 1 on its odyssey to Johnstown, mowing down the district’s top three seeds. They swept Council Rock North, which extinguished Garnet Valley’s district-title hopes, Plymouth Whitemarsh and Bishop Shanahan, the latter in a commanding 3-1 decision.

Garnet Valley, meanwhile, has logged a few more miles on the way to becoming Delco’s first volleyball state finalist.

The Jags (23-3) hurdled two district champs, District 3’s Red Lion and District 6’s previously unbeaten State College in a five-game classic, plus they overcame an 0-2 hole to take Baldwin the distance in the quarterfinals.

Garnet Valley’s resurgence springs from its dogged defense. Their rotating cast of attackers offer an egalitarian spread of the kills, but the Jags’ back row has awed their vanquished mid-Penn competition in recent weeks. Playing five straight elimination games and twice being one set from your season’s end has a way of sharpening the focus.

“There’s just this mentality of, nothing hits the floor,” senior libero Lizzie Herestofa said. “Especially in the state tournament, we can’t let anything drop.”

“I just think that there’s a fire in us, and when we see the ball coming for us, we just move and react,” senior Meagan Scott added. “We’re not thinking; we just feel the ball, we’re in the game. I feel like cohesively, we’re one unit when we play together, and it’s magical. When we get that ball up and Gabby (Davis) gets that awesome set and we kill it, it’s just electric running through us. From everyone who’s on the court to on the bench, it’s just awesome how we move together.”

Herestofa put on a masterful show against State College with 30 digs, while Scott added 18, Portale 16 (and 11 kills) and Amber Goldberg 11.

The defensive prowess plays into the Jags’ mastery of the underdog role, one they’ll reprise against prohibitively favored Parkland. Their states journey is understatedly valuable here, too.

The westerly route has helped the Jags escape the crowded corridor of the District 1 establishment, teams that regularly play each other during the regular season. Encountering new teams out west, many players say, has turned their focus inward, emphasizing their strengths and weakness more than concerning themselves with matchups borne of familiarity. So it will be again with Parkland.

“Parkland is a great team, but I just think what we have is something more than usual teams have,” outside hitter Cassidy Gallagher said. “And I think that the chemistry between us and all this hard work throughout the season that we build up to this moment, I think we’re really ready for it because ultimately we believe in each other.”

“It’s really cool because we are the underdogs,” senior middle Julianne Hurley added. “We’ve always been. And we do better when we’re the underdogs.”

That self-assurance puts the 2014 meeting strictly in the realm of ancient history. Portale may remember the deer-in-the-headlights look she sported as a sophomore, but only because she’s seen the Jags inspire it their opposition since.

That intimidation factor — of the banners and the wins and the “dash-1” next to Parkland’s seed — is out the window for a Jags team looking forward to one more match.

“I think at this point, seed doesn’t matter,” Portale said. “It could be that they’re the No. 1 seed out of District 11, but right now, it’s about who’s playing their best volleyball of the season. And I think we’re playing our best volleyball.”

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