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PJP opens districts with straight set win

ROYERSFORD >> Pope John Paul II’s girls’ volleyball team entered the District 1-AAA quarterfinals Wednesday with considerable momentum.

The Panthers, seeded No. 3 in the district, were fresh off a week’s rest following their Pioneer Athletic Conference championship victory last week over previously undefeated Upper Merion.

Playing again in front of their home crowd, PJP didn’t disappoint, dispatching sixth-ranked Sun Valley in straight sets, 25-22, 25-18, 25-16.

Mary Kate Mooney led the way with 14 kills, while Simone Sparano contributed 26 digs for the victorious Panthers, who move onto Monday’s district semifinals at No. 2 Mount St. Joseph, who topped Penncrest in another Wednesday quarterfinal.

Sparano was at the forefront of the victory literally from start to finish, singing the national anthem before the game and receiving a rousing ovation from the crowd. She admitted she might have been a little better prepared for the contest itself.

“They asked me about five minutes ahead of time whether I’d sing the anthem,” she laughed. “I practiced in the closet for a minute or so.”

Once the match started, Sparano’s defensive play allowed PJP to take the first set. A series of long rallies went the Panthers’ way early, but Sun Valley was able to rip off seven consecutive points to tie the opening game at 20.

That’s where Mooney stepped in, with three kills in the final five points, including two in a row to end the set. From there, the match followed a familiar pattern – PJP would establish a lead, then Sun Valley would rally to within a few points before PJP closed out each set with authority.

“We had some amazing rallies early,” said Sparano. “We knew we had to be patient, just take our time and not make mistakes.”

“I don’t think they (Sun Valley) got discouraged at all, they kept coming, and I told our player we could not afford any letdowns,” said PJP head coach Ryan Sell. “We had to work to score points. They weren’t going to beat themselves, so our players needed to take care of business.”

For the Vanguards, they end their season with a record of 14-9 and a whole lot to build on for 2018 and beyond.

“We have a bunch of freshmen and sophomores on our team, so to move through our conference and get this far gives us a lot to build on,” said Sun Valley coach Melissa Haines. “I believe we have a very bright future.”

PJP has advanced to the district finals the prior two seasons, only to come up short in the championship game. Now the Panthers stand one step away from a third opportunity – but it’s more like a hurdle. The Panthers will go on the road to face Mount St. Joseph, a team that Coach Sell admits is a complete unknown to his squad.

“We’ve never seen Mount St. Joseph,” said Sell. “These games are coin flips at this point (in the playoffs), so it’ll likely down to who works harder. We’ve got a little work to do.”

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