TREDYFFRIN >> The Conestoga students came out in force Monday, and not just because the girls volleyball team was hosting its “Dig Pink Day” for breast cancer awareness.
The students were there to see the Pioneers take on defending PIAA Class 4A champ Garnet Valley in a battle for first place in the Central League and they made their presence known throughout the match.
Senior outside hitter Erin Patterson and her teammates are used to the attention by now. It goes with the territory of being the defending state champ.
“We have a target on our back,” Patterson said. “Everyone wants to beat us.”
Only two teams have accomplished that feat. Upper Merion, the No. 6 team in the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association Class 4A poll, and undefeated Pennsbury.
The Pioneers gave it a go, but in the end the Jaguars were just too much as Garnet Valley moved into sole possession of first place in the Central League with a 3-0 victory over Conestoga, by scores of 25-11, 25-18 and 25-17.
The win extended Garnet Valley’s winning streak to five matches and gave the Jags (9-2 overall, 7-0 Central) a one-game lead on Conestoga and a two-game edge on Penncrest, Ridley, Strath Haven and Lower Merion in the race for the league title with four matches to play.
The Jaguars have also won 21 consecutive sets in league play since dropping the first set in a 3-1 victory over Penncrest in the league opener.
Not bad for a team with a target on its back.
“They’ve handled it well,” Garnet Valley coach Mark Clark said. “We lost two games to really tough teams, but they’ve handled it well. We were in both of those games, but we’re young, still, so to be in them, I’m OK with that. And that we’ve lost a couple of matches shows that we’re really young, but other than that they’ve handled it well.”
This is a completely different team than the one that stunned Parkland to win the state title a year ago. That team had nine seniors and was loaded with veteran experience. Patterson and libero Amber Goldberg are the only seniors and the only players who saw significant action during last season’s championship run.
The rest of the roster consists of nine juniors and one sophomore.
“We know we have big shoes to fill,” junior setter Rachel Cain said. “But I think we’ve blended well as a team. Everyone goes out every match and does what they’re supposed to do.”
Garnet Valley set the tone early to end any hope the Pioneers had of knocking off the defending state champs. The Jaguars led by as many as 13 points in the first set before settling for a 14-point victory.
The Jags then went on a 7-2 run to break open a see-saw battle in the second set.
“They always have excellent ball control and the thing is you can’t beat that team making mistakes,” Conestoga coach Diana Felker said of the Jaguars.
“If you make mistakes, they won’t. Like in the second set, we were right there until we had four straight errors between serving and hitting and all of the sudden that was the match.”
Several solid individual performances could not stop that. Libero Gabi Castro had nine digs to become the career leader in that category with 869. Setter Kat Chodaczek dished out 15 assists to move closer to becoming the career leader for helpers. Becky Larkin led the attack with nine kills, but it wasn’t enough.
“It only takes a few mistakes against a team that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Felker said. “They didn’t always hit the ball the hardest, but it always came back. That’s what I’m trying to instill in these girls. It’s not always about the big kill, it’s about forcing the other team to play every single ball regardless of how good or bad it is.”
Cain made sure that the Jaguars got a lot of solid swings. She finished with 33 assists, two kills and one ace.
“This was one of her better days setting the ball,” Clark said. “She was all over the court.”
Patterson was on the receiving end for 11 kills. Emma Rokosky pounded eight kills, followed by Samantha Mann with seven kills and two blocks.
“Emma’s great,” Patterson said. “Every ball is a great set. She makes my job easy.”
The defense was solid, too. Goldberg recorded 17 digs and junior Jordan Gallagher added 13 digs.
“I thought our defense played well today,” Clark said. “We really dug out a lot of balls. Because of our front line and back line defense we had an attack on every play. That was nice.”
And the Conestoga student section had a front-row seat for it all. They did their best to distract the Jaguars, but to no avail.
“There’s more pressure when there’s a large student section,” Cain said, “but that just makes us want to win that much more.”
Top photo: Garnet Valley’s Sam Mann, left, and Erin Patterson rise for the block during their match with Conestoga. PETE BANNAN – DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA