Over the course of their wildly successful 2017 campaign, Pope John Paul II’s girls’ volleyball team earned themselves the nickname of “Cardiac Kids.” The team had a penchant for pushing matches to the five-set limit before (usually) claiming yet another victory.
At the center of the storm was the calm, consistent presence of senior Mary Kate Mooney, the team’s only returning starter and The Mercury’s 2017 All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year.
Mooney and coach Ryan Sell’s Golden Panthers claimed the Pioneer Athletic Conference title before adding a District 1-AAA crown and advancing all the way to the PIAA state quarterfinals.
Statistically, Mooney led the Panthers with 258 kills and 155 service points in 2017 while adding 306 digs, good for second on the squad. But individual stats are only one part of the PJP senior’s story.
After the Panthers graduated eight seniors in 2016, Mooney and teammate Maggie Bevenour were the only team members with significant playing experience at the varsity level. Guided by the leadership of those two seniors, however, the young Panthers grew up quickly and gained more big-game experience in a season than many players receive over a four-year career.
“Experience helps,” confirmed Coach Sell, “and what we’ll miss next year is Mary Kate’s enthusiasm, and her ability to stay even under pressure. There’s a saying that ‘Rising tide lifts all boats.’ When you’ve got players who are always upbeat, always excited, people tend to follow them.”
“We don’t really name captains, because you don’t need a title to lead. You just need to be able to do the right thing in the right moment.”
For someone who’s described as magnetic and upbeat, maybe it isn’t too surprising that the turning point of the Panthers’ season was the one time Mooney described herself as “angry.” On October 9, the Panthers battled undefeated, league-leading Upper Merion in the Annual Dig Pink game – a match played each October and coupled with extensive fundraising for breast cancer awareness.
Clad almost entirely in pink, PJP fans, students, and supporters packed the gym in Royersford, producing a standing-room-only environment, “bigger than college crowds,” according to Coach Sell.
There was only one problem – the Panthers dropped a tight match to Upper Merion in four sets.
“It really lit a flame under us for the rest of the season,” said Mooney. “We were all angry – not at Upper Merion, but just the fact that the whole school was there, we’d never lost a Dig Pink game before… it was very disappointing.
“But in that moment, we decided it was over, and it was time to take the season as far as we could.”
What followed would be the two games Mooney remembers as the highlights of her high school career.
A week later, after outlasting Perkiomen Valley in five sets in the Pioneer Athletic Conference semifinals, the Panthers were back in their home gym, looking across the net at that same Upper Merion team with the PAC title on the line. It took five sets, but this time the Panthers outlasted UM behind Mooney’s 13 kills, the last of which clinched the title in the thrilling fifth-set tiebreaker.
“We were able to slow Upper Merion down, maybe frustrate them a little bit,” said Sell at the time, “but in crunch time, we looked for Mary Kate.”
The Panthers continued looking to Mooney during districts, where she led the team’s opening-round win over Sun Valley with 14 kills. Next was a road game at Mount St. Joseph for the district semifinals. With only two teams from District 1 qualifying for states, this one had some high stakes.
In typical fashion, the Panthers had to play five sets. In not-so-typical fashion, they found themselves facing consecutive match points, trailing 14-11 in the fifth. But against all odds, the Cardiac Kids reeled off five consecutive points to stave off the Magic and clinch their berth in states, led again by Mooney’s 21 kills and 20 digs.
“Not for a single second did I doubt my team,” said Mooney after clinching the berth in states. “I knew, somehow, we were going to pull out of it. I have compete and utter faith in my teammates.”
Weeks later, recounting the contest, Mooney shared some more details.
“Yes, I was nervous,” she reluctantly admitted. ‘But I try not to get in my own head. It’s a challenge, when you’re thinking it could be your last game, but I had complete confidence throughout the entire comeback.”
Buoyed by the stunning turnaround, Mooney and PJP handled Merion Mercy in the finals to become District 1-AAA champions and advance to the state tournament. After outlasting District 12’s Cardinal O’Hara in (you guessed it) five sets, the Panthers would head to Exeter High School to face District 3’s West York High in the quarterfinals. While the dream season ended that afternoon in four sets, Mooney pointed out after the game that it was just the beginning for the relatively young Panthers team.
“These girls are fighters, hard workers, and they won’t stop until they’re back on top,” she said following her final high school game.
“We went further than anyone expected us to,” Mooney said. “I couldn’t really be upset. Disappointed, for sure, but mostly I was just incredibly proud.”
Mooney started playing volleyball at age 11 in Sacred Heart’s (Royersford) CYO program. She moved into Club Integrity in Collegeville and was mentored by coaches including Jen Portela, Pat Guarino, Jess Highley, and Justine McNulty.
“I’d tried a bunch of other sports, and I wasn’t very good at any of them,” Mary Kate laughed, “so volleyball was my last chance!”
“I think you could see the difference right away,” said Doug Mooney, Mary Kate’s father. “She wasn’t bad at the other sports, but she just kind of went through the motions. With volleyball, she really took to it.”
“I think it was the teamwork and the support I received,” said Mary Kate. “One person can’t carry the team in this sport – it’s everyone working together and cheering for each other.”
Along the way, Mary Kate’s cheering section grew to include not only her parents, Mary and Doug, but numerous family members, friends, and an entire volleyball community.
“She had an opportunity to learn from so many great coaches and teammates,” said Mary Mooney, Mary Kate’s mother. “It’s been a great opportunity for her and helped her to become the person she is.”
Now, Mooney gets the chance to start brand new, as she will head to Bloomsburg University to major in psychology and become a part of the school’s first varsity-level volleyball team. The Huskies will compete in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
“I like the idea of being one of the first, able to build a new family, a new environment,” said Mooney.
But as you might imagine, she won’t forget her first volleyball family back at PJP. In fact, she’s already planning her first trip back to PJP to see the 2018 Dig Pink match.
She’ll want to leave plenty of time, because if it’s anything like 2017, it’ll likely be a five-set match.
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