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Pope John Paul II wins second straight PAC title in 5-set stunner over Upper Merion

ROYERSFORD >> Pope John Paul II coach Ryan Sell was under no illusions about the expected outcome of Wednesday’s Pioneer Athletic Conference volleyball championship match against the undefeated Upper Merion Vikings.

“If you asked ten people who was going to win,” Sell offered, “they probably would’ve all told you Upper Merion.”

Those ten people would’ve only grown more confident after the Vikings controlled the first set. But it was the young Golden Panthers who showed great resilience in surviving a tense second set and turning the match around in the third, ultimately prevailing in a five-set classic, 10-25, 25-20, 25-14, 15-25, 15-11 to capture the 2017 PAC championship.

It marks a second straight PAC title for PJP (15-4), and the fourth overall for Coach Sell, whose Golden Panthers avenged two previous losses to Upper Merion this season in sending the Vikings to their first defeat (19-1).

“They (Upper Merion) have a tremendous team,” said PJP senior and captain Mary Kate Mooney, who paced the champs with 13 kills and 13 digs on the night. “But we’ve been working hard for this moment — to improve, to come together, and we finally did it.”

The first set was dominated by the Vikings, who prevailed 25-10 behind the strong service game of junior Tori Wright (28 kills). For PJP, however, it was just what they needed to get going.

“All year, we’ve done a great job of working together to get motivated and turn things around,” said Mooney. “We’re a close-knit group, and when we decide to go all-in, there’s no stopping us.”

Strategically, Coach Sell focused on limiting Upper Merion’s Wright and co-captain Emma Andraka to any extent possible. Statistically, it was a mixed bag — Andraka adding 19 kills to Wright’s 28 — but after the first set, PJP was able to prevent Upper Merion from going on the extended runs that had hurt the Panthers in the first two encounters.

“We know that they set for Emma and Tori the vast majority of the time,” said Sell, “and we know they’re going to get kills. But by triple-blocking them, we were able to slow them down, maybe frustrate them a bit. Sometimes we did a good job — sometimes we didn’t — but all in all, we were able to get back into the game by spreading the ball around a bit.

“In crunch time, though, we’re going to look for Mary Kate.”

The Panthers did just that, leaning on Mooney — one of only two seniors on the roster — time and time again in rallying to win the second and third sets. After Upper Merion pushed the contest to a fifth-set tiebreaker, PJP’s Simone Sparano (21 digs) bailed out the Panthers defensively in building an 8-4 lead. Upper Merion would close to within 12-10, but consecutive service points by Sparano were quickly followed by Mooney’s 13th and final kill to set off the celebration in PJP’s gym.

“Just looking at the fifth game — we made mistakes, and they didn’t,” summarized Upper Merion coach Tony Funsten. “You can’t let your opponent get comfortable, you can’t play frenetically.”

Indeed, the composure of the Panthers may well have been the difference — somewhat surprising, given the youth of the team. But according to Mary Kate Mooney, PJP’s underclassmen have stepped up repeatedly in tense moments and given themselves the confidence to take control in crunch time.

“We make sure everyone has a role in leadership,” she said. “We try to set an example as seniors, but everyone has a role in every area on this team.”

Both the Vikings and Panthers will move onto districts from here — Upper Merion in 4A, PJP in 3A. PJP has come up short in the district final the last two years.

But as they showed Wednesday night, avenging prior defeats brings out the best in this championship team.

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