By Jake Oswalt
For Digital First Media
RICHLAND TOWNSHIP >> It was a feeling the Bishop Shanahan volleyball program did not have to feel in a calendar year. The Eagles had just dropped their only match of the season to North Allegheny by a 25-21, 25-12, 25-16 tally on Saturday evening in the PIAA Class 4A championship game at Richland High School to finish the season with a 25-1 record.
After a few moments talking to loved ones on the floor, the players were able to hold their heads high on the walk back to the locker room. The Eagles endured and overcame injuries to Ceandra Ashman, Natalie Ogden and Cara Shultz, a member of last year’s all-state team, to navigate one of the toughest roads possible just to reach the state title game.
“I’m so unbelievably proud of this group of girls. We came so close over the course of this season and you can’t win them all,” said Bishop Shanahan senior setter Renee Shultz of the three-time District 1 champs. “I love these girls with all my heart and I’m so proud of what we accomplished. While I am sad the season’s over and it was my last year, I wish nothing but the best for the girls going on in the program. Hopefully they make it back here again.”
Shultz’s reflection became a prevailing theme after the disappointing loss. Bishop Shanahan, which was ranked No. 1 in the state by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association throughout the season, knew they didn’t play up to the optimum level, but the Eagles were the first to compliment North Allegheny’s outstanding performance.
“I feel like they really caught us off guard by how scrappy they were and their refusal to let the ball drop. I think we have that same mentality but they just executed it better than us in these three sets,” Bishop Shanahan senior outside hitter Tessa Elder said.
A senior class consisting of Ashman, Elder, Breianna Mineweiser, Ogden, Renee Shultz, Kailey Smith and Kerrie Sullivan helped lead the Eagles past Parkland in the state semifinals. Shanahan had its season end with a loss to Parkland in 2016.
“Honestly this was the best season of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Elder said. “I’m so happy that we made it this far. It’s a bittersweet moment as a senior but it’s so inspiring to see how the underclassmen are going to use this and hopefully take this and win the whole thing next year.”
Underclassmen such as junior Julia Thomas were grateful to see first-hand how a senior class can help keep a team together through such hardships.
“I learned so much from the seniors. I learned about leadership and how to take over a game. I learned everything from them. I’m so proud of them,” Thomas said.
Throughout the season, members of the team showcased a selfless attitude and a knack to fill in admirably for players lost to injury. Renee Shultz, who provided 14 assists against North Allegheny, made a permanent switch to setter as Ashman was lost to severe migraines. Freshman Brooke Burns helped alleviate the pain of losing Cara Shultz to a stress fracture. Complementary players such as Mia Caporellie and Smith stepped into elevated roles seamlessly.
“The injuries were definitely tough to deal with. We lost one of our starting outsides the day before state playoffs began so that was really tough,” Elder said. “Our bench is so ready to just go in and play. We have such a strong bench, I think that’s what makes us such a good program is that anybody can be thrown into a position and do amazing.”
Coach Greg Ashman learned a lot about unproven varsity players thrown into the fire as needs arose throughout the season.
“We’re running with kids at the beginning of the season who weren’t part of the starting rotation. We had five injuries, four injuries to starters, to take kids away,” Ashman said. “Those are huge holes to fill and be able to run a season undefeated like we did. The kids who filled in just played phenomenal.”
Bishop Shanahan became a more galvanized unit as the injuries started to mount up.
“I’ve never played on a team that’s had so much chemistry. I also think that losing last year in the semifinals really stung. This year, we just knew that we wanted to be in this situation and we wanted to make it to the finals,” Elder said. “Unfortunately we couldn’t win, but I still think we had an amazing season.”
A strong core comprised of Burns, Caporellie, Grace Casagrande, Michaela Devlin, Julie Gallagher (15 digs against North Allegheny), Cara Shultz, Thomas and Alysa Wright will come back hungry for another shot at claiming Shanahan’s first state title since 2009.
“I just thought it was a really good experience to have,” Thomas said of playing on the state’s biggest stage. “I just thought our whole season was amazing. We can’t let this one game define us. This will definitely motivate us for next year.”
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