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Upper Merion outlasts Pope John Paul II on Panther vs. Cancer Night

ROYERSFORD >> It was a big night for Pope John Paul II’s volleyball team — on and off the court.

The Golden Panthers welcomed undefeated Upper Merion — the No. 1-ranked team in District 1’s 4A classification — on the same night they celebrated Dig Pink Breast Cancer Awareness night.

Panthers fans and students packed the house for the event, now in its eighth year at PJP. The annual contest has come to be known as “Panthers vs. Cancer.”

“We sell shirts, we do bake sales… it’s a great event for our school and community,” said PJP head coach Ryan Sell.

The Upper Merion girls volleyball team celebrates after winning a point in the third set against Pope John Paul II Monday. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

School officials indicated they hoped to surpass last year’s fundraising mark of $8,000, and that final figures would be available by the end of the week. But perhaps even more importantly, the event received the vocal support of the PJP student body, who created a unique home-court advantage by showing up in full force — and full attire, dressed head-to-toe in pink to show support for cancer survivors.

As for the match itself, Upper Merion remained undefeated, staving off the gallant effort from PJP in four sets, 25-23, 17-25, 25-19, 25-21. Tori Wright led the way with 21 kills and 25 digs, while Emma Andraka added 19 kills and 19 digs. Kelly Moore added 43 assists for the 16-0 Vikings.

“This was some kind of atmosphere, and we had to rely on our experience and leadership,” admitted Upper Merion coach Tony Funsten. “We’re still learning, still growing… but this team has the potential to be special.”

Upper Merion’s Tori Wright (11) sends a kill past Pope John Paul II’s Hanna Tulli (22) and Caitlin Gilinger (7) during Monday’s match. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

After PJP evened the match at one set a piece, Upper Merion rallied to finish the match in the final two stanzas, proving their mettle in an unrivaled environment that had fans out the door of PJP’s over-capacity gym.

“We battled back and fixed the mistakes (from the second set),” said Wright. “I think after tonight, we’re ready for whatever comes our way.”

“This was incredible… I couldn’t hear myself think,” added Andraka. “But Tori and I take it on ourselves to keep everyone focused, and block out the distractions.”

“We’ve set a bunch of team goals. Going undefeated wasn’t one of them, but it sure would be nice.”

Pope John Paul II’s Mary Kate Mooney, center, celebrates after winning a point against Upper Merion Monday. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

Mary Kate Mooney led the way for the Panthers with 13 kills, while Chelsea Harvey added 11 service points.

PJP dropped to 11-4 on the season, but as the No. 3 ranked team in District 1-AAA, the Panthers plan to use the match — and the caliber of opponent — as a building block for the playoffs and beyond.

“We have some younger kids, and they’re pretty experienced,” said Coach Sell. “It’s a great experience for us to play a team like this. It’s great for our young players to experience an environment like this.”

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