CONCORD >> The buses rolled into the parking lot at Garnet Valley High School around 12:30 a.m. Sunday, escorted by police and fire vehicles, complete with flashing lights and ear-shattering sirens.
The neighbors along Smithbridge Road had to be a little perturbed at the late-night commotion, but it was a welcome home befitting of a team that had just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in PIAA volleyball history with a gritty, 3-2 come-from-behind win over two-time defending state champion Parkland in the Class 4A final at Richland High School in Johnstown.
Getting there and getting back were both long and joyous rides, and the Jags were still in a daze when they stepped off the bus to a crowd of well-wishers that included family, friends and school-district administrators.
“It’s so unexpected,” libero Lizzie Herestofa said. “If you had asked me in the beginning of the season if I thought we could even go this far I would have told you that you were crazy. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
All the players and coaches felt that way.
“I can’t put this into words,” fellow senior Sydney Portale said. “I honestly can’t. We were all sitting there on the bus trying to figure out what to say to each other and it was impossible. It was such an amazing night.”
It was an achievement that few thought possible. The Jaguars (24-2) were a decided underdog. Garnet Valley was the fifth-place team out of District 1 and was facing a Parkland team that had won three of the last five big school state titles and had been to the championship round in four of the last five seasons. Going into the state final, Parkland had won 119 of its last 123 games, including 70 in a row from the start of the 2014 season until it suffered a 3-0 loss to Liberty Oct. 22. The Trojans avenged that loss with a 3-2 triumph in the District 11 final.
Five-set matches were a rarity for Parkland. The Trojans had to go five sets five times since 2010 and won all five. That last five-set loss, according to those online records, was a 3-2 decision to Nazareth on Oct. 15, 2009.
“Wow,” Garnet Valley coach Mark Clark said.
Parkland coach Mike Krause was equally impressed.
“That’s probably the best set location I’ve seen in the state finals,” Krause told lehighvalleylive.com. Referencing Garnet Valley setter Gabby Davis, Krause added that she “put them on the money and those girls took advantage of it.”
Davis had a staggering 48 assists, which led to equally impressive numbers in the attack. Nicole Loan slammed 14 kills. Portale and Erin Patterson had 10 each. Julianne Hurley pitched in with nine kills.
Defense, however, was the difference. The Jaguars had 116 digs. Herestofa (42), Portale (15), Amber Goldberg (13), Cassidy Gallagher (12) and Meagan Scott (11) were all in double figures, according to Garnet Valley’s statistics. Davis had nine digs. Patterson chipped in with seven. Portale and Loan added four blocks apiece. Hurley had three blocks.
“It was insane, and it wasn’t just because it was a five-set match,” Portale said. “It was because Lizzie, Meg, Amber and Jesse (Gourdier) are just incredible back there. They’re amazing. They don’t let anything fall. “
“They just got everything up,” Parkland’s Paige Konsko said to lehighvalley.com. “They played their hardest and we were really impressed with what they gave us.”
Garnet Valley’s victory started with a 25-19 victory in the first set.
“I was not expecting it at all,” Herestofa said. “To be honest, my spirits were a little bit low when we walked into the gym. I thought, ‘As long as we give them a good game.’ We were all so surprised at how well we were playing and how well we competed with them.
“After we won the first game, though, I felt, ‘We’re in this. We can do this.’”
Garnet Valley’s confidence did not wane even after Parkland took the next two sets, 29-27 and 25-19.
“We were still confident after we lost the second and third game,” Herestofa said, “but then we completely wowed ourselves in the fourth and fifth games.”
The Jags took Game 4, 25-20, and rolled in Game 5, 15-8.
“We controlled the whole first game,” Clark said. “I don’t think there was a point where we were behind in the first game. The second game was so tight at the end. It was so close. We were on game point at 24-23. We could have taken that second game and the third game was close, too. We were in it the whole way. But once we took the fourth game we knew we could conquer anything.”
The Jaguars owned the final set and carved their place in Pennsylvania volleyball history on a dig by Herestofa, a perfect pass from Davis and an equally perfect swing by Patterson.
“Our thinking going into the game was that we had to play our best volleyball,” Portale said. “If we did that, we knew we could compete with anybody and we really showed that tonight. We played a near-perfect game. I’m just so proud of this entire team.”
“We just battled and battled and made things happen,” Clark said. “I’m still on cloud nine. These are a great group of girls. What an experience. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot with this kind of thing. You don’t know if you’re ever going to make it back, even though we’re calling this the new norm at Garnet Valley. This team set the bar high.”