DOWNINGTOWN – It’s a slogan that was unveiled prior to the volleyball season, and make no mistake: Bishop Shanahan’s ‘2017 Redemption Tour’ is all about winning the program’s first state crown since 2009.
But first thing’s first. The unbeaten Eagles have to maneuver through the District 1 4A Playoffs, and on Monday evening the defending state champs from Garnet Valley proved that the road ahead is anything but easy. Seeded eighth, the Jaguars pushed top-seeded Shanahan to the brink early before succumbing, 3-1. The scores were 20-25, 25-23, 25-21, 25-20.
“We knew (Garnet Valley) was going to come in here ready to play,” said Eagles’ head coach Greg Ashman. “We beat them earlier this season and they wanted to avenge that loss.
“But let’s face it, everyone wants to knock off Shanahan. We are aware of that and we try to get the girls mentally prepared for it. But there is a difference between talking about it and actually going out and doing it.”
The host Eagles (20-0 overall) are the defending district champs, but they got off to a slow start in each of the first three games before finishing strong. Shanahan advances to the semifinals where they will host fifth-seeded Perkiomen Valley on Wednesday.
“In a lot of our tougher matches this season we’ve started slow,” Ashman pointed out. “I guess we’d like to see how far we can bend before we break. But against good team, we can’t keep doing that.”
Now 15-5 overall, Garnet Valley drops into the playbacks round and will travel to No. 4 West Chester Henderson on Wednesday. In order to have a chance to defend the state crown the Jaguars need to finish among the top five in the district tournament, which means they must top the Knights.
“I thought we played hard in all four games,” said Garnet Valley head coach Mark Clark.
“I’m not happy with the outcome, but (Shanahan) is a big team and a very good team. We gave it everything we had.”
With ‘2017 Redemption Tour’ emblazoned on their warm-ups, the Eagles certainly remember last year’s exit in the semifinals of the PIAA State Tournament.
“I can say, as a senior and with so many seniors on this team, we want this so badly,” said outside hitter Tess Elder. “We want to finish our last game in high school with a win. Redemption has been our motto since day one.”
Ashman added: “It is message to remember what happened last year. We’ve been a high level team for a number of years and I want nothing more than for these girls to win (the state title) this year.”
In the regular season, Shanahan topped the Jags rather easily, but on Monday Garnet Valley opened a 12-7 lead in game one thanks to some effective serving by Rachel Cain. The Eagles never got closer than two the rest of the way and won it 25-20, going wire-to-wire.
“(Garnet Valley) kind of surprised us, to be honest,” Elder acknowledged. “We beat them in three earlier this season, so it was almost a wakeup call. No team is going to hand us anything and everybody wants to beat us. We just have to push harder to get it.”
There were eight ties in the pivotal second game, but Shanahan scored five of the last seven points to hang on. Natalie Ogden had back-to-back kills to make it 24-22, and teammate Michaela Devlin wrapped it up with a kill.
“A couple balls here or there. When it’s down to 21-21 and you are right there in the mix, you have to try to finish it there,” Clark said.
“That was huge. We lose that second game and we are really fighting for our lives at that point,” Ashman added.
“Our setter (Renee Shultz) really pulled us together, controlled the flow and she said, ‘we are not losing this,’” Elder recalled.
The reprieve bolstered the Eagles, who went on a 6-0 run in game three, turning a 14-13 battle into a more manageable 20-13. In that stretch, junior middle blocker Julia Thomas registered four of her team-high seven blocks.
In game four, the Jaguars scored five in a row with Emma Rokosky serving to knot it at 12-12. But Elder helped Shanahan to stage a 7-2 rally to make it 21-16 with two kills and an ace. Ogden and Devlin then closed it out with individual kills.
“We made some adjustments with our blocking in the second game, the girls started listening and it really showed,” Ashman said. “And by the third game we just blocked them to death.”
It’s important to note that Shanahan’s record in unblemished despite missing two standouts for most of the season. All-State hitter Cara Shultz has been out with a stress-fracture since week two and has yet to be cleared to play. And setter Ceandra Ashman has been day-to-day with migraine headaches.
“We’ve been missing those two for most of the season and we’ve learned to adjust,” Greg Ashman said. “We have a deep bench and on any given night we use different combinations.”
Elder led the way for the Eagles with 21 kills, 13 digs and four blocks. Renee Shultz (40 assists, three kills, 19 digs) and Julie Gallagher (19 digs) also contributed. Garnet Valley’s Rokosky and Erin Patterson had 21 and 17 kills, respectively, and Cain chipped in with 45 assists.
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