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Garnet Valley on the road again with state final berth at stake

CONCORD >> After setting up the nets and making sure there were plenty of balls for practice Monday, Garnet Valley volleyball coach Mark Clark sat down to take care of the most important matter of the day: Ordering lunch for Tuesday’s three-plus hour ride to State College High School to take on North Allegheny in the semifinal round of the PIAA Class 4A playoffs.

“I have to get this done,” Clark said.

And so before the Jaguars stretched or took one swing to prepare for their 5 p.m. match with the undefeated Tigers (22-0), Clark sat down in front of his computer and had each player line up in single file to place her order.

“I’m glad that’s out of the way,” Clark said.

Long bus rides have become a state playoff routine for the Jaguars (19-5), who are ranked sixth in the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association Class 4A top 10. That’s what happens when you finish fifth in District 1 two years in a row. Your team gets sent on the road. Garnet Valley logged roughly 1,100 miles during its run to the PIAA title a year ago. The team will approach the 750-mile mark when its 354-mile round trip ride to State College is over.

That’s a lot of hours spent on the road.

“The bus rides are fun,” said senior Erin Patterson, who is headed to Kutztown. “They’re long, but they’re a lot of fun.”

The Jaguars have a chance to make history if they can come out on top in their latest road trip. A win would make the Jags just the second team from District 1 to reach back-to-back state finals in the largest classification. Villa Maria Academy (1996 and 1997) is the only team to accomplish that feat.

And while others around the state may be surprised that Garnet Valley is in the final four again, the Jags aren’t. They were confident they could make another deep playoff run despite losing nine players off last year’s championship team.

“We’re fighters,” Patterson said. “We practice hard and we play hard.”  

“After the season, Coach Greg (Wood) said, ‘This is not an anomaly. We can do this again next year,’” added senior libero Amber Goldberg, who has narrowed her college choice down to Neumann and Catholic University. “We thought we could, too.”

That confidence came from watching Rachel Cain, Sam Mann, Emma Rokosky, Ally Hartney, Alana Hagerty and Jordan Gallagher in practice. They were JV players last year, but went up against the varsity each day in practice. All of them made the bus rides so they were part of the championship run.

“Being part of that whole experience inspired them,” Clark said. “Playing against that team helped them become better players and being on the bus and at the games pushed them a little bit to make their own mark and they have.”

And they didn’t walk through a weak bracket, as some say. Of the six state playoff wins the Jaguars have in last two years, three have come against teams that have won a combined 12 PIAA titles. Garnet Valley beat Hempfield to open state play this year. The Black Knights have won five state titles. Last year, the Jags defeated Baldwin, winner of four PIAA crowns and three-time champ Parkland in the state final.

“Those teams out there are good,” Wood said. “We just don’t see them on this side of the state.”

The Jags face another heavyweight in North Allegheny. The Tigers are second in the coaches poll. The only team ahead of them is Bishop Shanahan. North Allegheny has been to the PIAA title game four times since volleyball became a fall-only sport in 1985, winning the title three years in a row from 1992-94. North Allegheny also lost in the 2008 final and is making its eighth appearance in the semis.

Led by outside hitter Mika Logan (Eastern Kentucky), libero Erin Carmody (Pitt-Johnstown) and Kayla Dinkins (Tulane), the Tigers have not dropped a set in 10 consecutive matches and surrendered just four sets all season.

So, the Jaguars have their work cut out for them, on the road, of course, but they’re use to that by now. They have the miles to prove it. A win would require another long bus ride to take on either Bishop Shanahan or Parkland in the PIAA Class 4A championship game Saturday afternoon at Richland High School in Johnstown.

At least they know the way.

“The nice thing about this run is seeing them grow as a team, a whole unit, pushing each other every day in practice and in every game,” Clark said. “It’s nonstop. They want to keep going. We’ve had some little bumps in games, but those little bumps are starting to get flattened out.

“We’re really playing together as one whole unit. We’re remembering all the little things. We’re communicating on the floor. We’re picking each other up when someone does something. Everybody is chasing for a ball. Nothing is hitting the floor. They’ve really come into their own and it’s been nice to see.”

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