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Garnet Valley set to begin defense of state volleyball title

CONCORD >> When Amber Goldberg breaks the Garnet Valley volleyball huddle Tuesday night, much will look familiar to the senior libero.

The Jaguars will be back in the PIAA Class 4A tournament that they won last year. They’ll be far from home, traveling a western path through the bracket thanks to a fifth-place finish in District 1, same as last fall.

And the girls around the senior libero will be the ones who filled the Garnet Valley buses on lengthy road trips through Central and Western Pa. last year. Well, sort of.

“I feel like we have everything that we had last year,” Goldberg was saying Friday, after the Jags beat Spring-Ford, 3-0, to clinch their states berth. “It’s not really much of a change but it’s playing with new people that we played with on JV.”

Goldberg, Rachel Cain and outside hitter Erin Patterson were part of the squad that marched to the championship last November, primarily understudies to a troika of All-Delcos. And the rest of the Garnet Valley roster that will line up Tuesday night at Manheim Township High School against District 3 champ Hempfield? They made up a pretty good JV team last year.

That’s the downside for coach Mark Clark of having a special group like his class of 2017, composed of nine contributing seniors. But writ large for a program that put itself on the statewide map with last year’s first state title, the Jaguars’ ability to return to states with essentially a completely different squad underscores that its developmental strength doesn’t just comprise one kismet class.

“It’s obviously a completely different team,” Goldberg said. “But it gives us that pride. All those girls were with us practicing, so they were always with us, they were cheering us on last year. All of us last year were still a team. They were with us through states last year.”

This year’s Jags (17-5) follow the same blueprint as last year. Last year’s team was anchored by its defense, epitomized by a mind-boggling 116 digs collected in the five-set state final win over Parkland. Lizzie Herestofa, the 2016 Daily Times Girls Volleyball Player of the Year, led the defensive brilliance, while All-Delco setter Gabby Davis distributed to a varied attacking corps with no standout star but a passel of imposing options (led by All-Delco Sydney Portale).

The 2017 iteration of the Jaguars is cut from the same cloth, though the balance of power shifts toward the attacking side. Again, there’s no single offensive threat that an opponent can key on, assured that bottling her up will undermine the Jags’ attack. And the squad adheres to the mentality Clark instills down the years – defensive specialists who can pass, attackers who can defend.

As the domination of Spring-Ford illustrated, variation at the net can give opponents fits.

“It makes it really easy for me because I know wherever I can go, they’re always going to get an amazing hit,” Cain said. “They make me look good. They really do.”

Patterson and Emma Rokosky are the stalwarts on the outside. In the middle, Samantha Mann and Ally Hartney shifted the balance against the Rams with 17 kills and seven blocks, the astute change of pace that discombobulates defenses just when they think they’ve deciphered Garnet.

The age demographics have also shifted. Where last year’s team was senior-heavy, the Class of 2019 holds sway now, with eight of 12 varsity roster spots occupied by juniors, plus the sophomore Mann.

“I think it’s definitely a new group getting to its peak for the first time,” Rokosky said. “We have Amber and Erin who were state champions last year, so it’s nice to have them knowing what it’s like going into states. But for everyone else, we’re brand new to this and I just can’t wait to see how far we go.”

Those changes create the nuance in identity the Jaguars carry. Yes, they are the defending state champs, with a group of players imbued in that responsibility, whether on the court or not.

But it’s also a group looking even more to the future for direction than the past.

“We felt a lot of pressure after winning last year,” Cain said. “We wanted to get back, but also are doing it for ourselves and because we want to do it, not because we feel like we have to.”

Also in the Class 4A tournament:

Archbishop Carroll vs. Pennsbury >> As usual, the top half of the 4A bracket is loaded, with six of the top eight teams in the latest Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association poll. Carroll (19-2), ranked fifth, will take on unranked Pennsbury (23-3) at Bishop McDevitt at 3:45.

The winner likely gets top-ranked and undefeated Bishop Shanahan, which contends with District 11 runner-up Nazareth.

The Patriots claimed the Catholic League title, dropping just one set in 15 regular season and playoff matches. Carroll last lost Oct. 2 (Mount St. Joseph).

Pennsbury edged Spring-Ford in five sets to make states. It carries a two-match losing streak, falling to Upper Merion in the semis and Perkiomen Valley in the third-place match.

In Class 3A:

Cardinal O’Hara vs. Pope John Paul II >> The Lions (18-6), who finished third in District 12, have a tough task against the giant-killing District 1 champ at Methacton at 6 p.m.

The Golden Panthers (18-4) have won seven straight, including a romp from the No. 3 seed in the district to the title. PJP claimed the Pioneer Athletic Conference crown with a pair of five-set wins over teams representing District 1 in the 6A tournament: Second seed Upper Merion and No. 3 Perk Valley. The Golden Panthers are ranked third in the state in Class 3A by the PVCA.

O’Hara swept W.B. Saul in the District 12 third-place game after dropping a five-set match to District 12 Class 3A champ Archbishop Wood in the Catholic League semifinal.

In Class A:

Sacred Heart vs. Halifax >> The Lions (14-9) enter states for the first time since 2015 in a match close to home at Lower Merion at 6. They swept Dock Mennonite in the District 1 final, then bested District 12 champ Parkway West to qualify. Setter Hannah Martinson provided 18 aces across the two games, while Julianna Michniak and Jaycee Webster posted double-doubles against Dock.

Halifax (18-6) is the District 3 runner-up. The third seed in that tournament, Halifax upset No. 2 Upper Dauphin in five sets in the semis before succumbing to 20-1 Covenant Christian in the final.

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