Tony Funsten wasn’t sure he wanted to watch the film and relive the heartbreaking result.
It was just a day or two after Upper Merion’s girls volleyball team saw its 2017 season end with a tough five-set loss to Exeter Township in a first-round PIAA Class 4A match.
“I took the loss pretty hard the other day,” said Funsten, the only head coach the Vikings have ever had during the program’s 24-year history. “Losses like that are going to happen; it’s more about how you recover from it.
“So I looked at the tape. Sometimes I don’t like to look at the last match, but I did this time. You know what? I saw that we played well. Some of our players even had their best matches of the year.”
The Upper Merion program has been so good for so long that even on a night when the Vikings squandered two match points in the fourth set and lost to Exeter Township, they flashed many more positive moments than negative ones.
The Vikings’ 2017 campaign, in fact, was loaded with positives moments.
They returned to the state tournament for the first time since 2014.
They won their first Pioneer Athletic Conference Frontier Division title in their second season in the league.
They won their first 19 matches on the way to a 22-3 overall record.
In the District 1 quarterfinals, they knocked off Central Bucks West to reach an impressive milestone — their 700th victory as a program. Upper Merion now has 701 all-time wins, following its district semifinal triumph over Pennsbury.
If you do the math, it means that the Vikings have averaged just over 29 wins per season. A program has to have lengthy postseason runs in order to achieve such lofty victory totals, and Upper Merion certainly has had them.
The UM program’s inaugural season was 1994; the Vikings first qualified for the state tournament in 1996, in just their third year. They have 11 state appearances overall, to go along with six District 1 titles.
So, what has been the chief reason for Upper Merion’s sustained success?
“The beauty of volleyball is teamwork, and that’s what we stress,” Funsten said. “Even though we had two outstanding, record-setting, 1,000-kill hitters (senior Emma Andraka and junior Tori Wright), all aspects of the game have to be working in order to be successful.
“(Andraka and Wright) don’t get to swing if we don’t set the ball for them. We don’t get in position for those kills unless we play good defense. It’s all about teamwork, and we stress that. There are no little things in volleyball.”
Wright, who recorded her 1,000th career kill in the Vikings’ District 1 championship match loss to Bishop Shanahan, said Funsten is the main reason that Upper Merion contends for district titles year after year.
“It’s the values he instills and the goals he sets,” Wright said. “We never set a goal to have a winning season. Our goals are just to focus on doing everything well. If we do that, winning takes care of itself.”
All of Upper Merion’s varsity contributors play club volleyball, so they come into the high school program with advanced skills. That doesn’t prevent Funsten from concentrating on the basics.
“Mr. Funsten really focuses on fundamentals,” said Andraka, who is believed to be the only player in Upper Merion history to finish her career with 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs. “We do a lot of work on getting the foundation in place, and then we move to more advanced things. The way he runs practices has a lot to do with our success.”
Most programs would give anything to have only a two-year “drought” of failing to qualify for the state tournament. For Upper Merion, though, it felt like a bit of a dry spell when the team was eliminated in the district quarterfinals in both 2015 and ’16.
The Vikings were not going to be denied this year, though. They returned their entire starting lineup from 2016, losing just one varsity player to graduation. Their 2017 roster featured six juniors, four sophomores and only three seniors. Andraka was the lone senior starter.
“We had pretty much everybody back from last year, and all the girls play club,” Andraka said. “So we all had another whole year of club tournaments under our belts and we upped our skill level.
“(Sophomore) Gretchen (Bahmueller), our middle (hitter), really stepped up this year, and the fact that everyone was back helped us work well as a team.”
The regular starting rotation featured Andraka, juniors Wright, Emily Gallagher (libero), Danielle Chung (middle/outside hitter), Katelyn O’Brien (defensive specialist/setter) and Kelly Moore (setter), and sophomore Bahmueller.
What pleased Funsten as much as anything was this: Upper Merion lost eight matches in 2016 to five different opponents (Plymouth Whitemarsh, Spring-Ford, Pope John Paul II, Liberty and eventual state champion Garnet Valley). This season, the Vikings posted regular-season victories over each of those teams.
“That’s progress,” he said.
Wright said Upper Merion went into the matches against those teams with a sharper focus.
“I think we were a lot more motivated to beat those teams,” Wright said. “We took those losses last year, tried to learn from them and do everything better this year. We tried to serve a little better, pass a little better and hit a little better.”
Hopes will again be high for Upper Merion in 2018. Every starter except Andraka will return, but her loss will certainly be felt.
“She’s a special player,” Funsten said. “She was first-team all-district and all-state as a junior, yet I’ve never had a player who improved more from her junior year to her senior year.”
Andraka thinks the Vikings have the chance to be a force once again next year.
“I was the only senior to start, so, with everyone else back and with an extra year of club experience, I think they should do very well,” Andraka said.
Funsten said that although experience will be a team strength in 2018, it won’t guarantee the Vikings anything.
“Next year’s team is going to be hard-pressed to surpass what this year’s team did,” Funsten said. “It’s like (St. Joseph’s University men’s basketball coach) Phil Martelli once said, ‘Older doesn’t mean better.’ You’ve got to keep working to get better.”
Based on their history, one would expect Funsten’s Vikings will do just that.
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