Garnet Valley claims Central title in a thriller

RIDLEY TWP. —  Last Thursday, Garnet Valley bested Strath Haven in a three-set match that could have gone five to clinch the Central League regular-season title. Anyone who felt robbed of great volleyball six days ago was rewarded Wednesday night in a championship rematch at Ridley High School. In five scintillating games, the Jaguars outlasted the Panthers, 25-27, 25-21, 25-22, 22-25 and 16-14 to claim a 3-2 victory.

The rivals treated the lead like the ball — they traded it back and forth like it was part of the game. Strath Haven appeared to grab the momentum with a late rally in the fourth set. The Panthers, facing elimination, trailed the Jaguars, 20-16. But spurred on by two Bree Fisher aces, the visitors closed with a 9-2 run to force a fifth set.

In that frame, the Panthers rolled out to a 5-0 lead. Garnet Valley coach Mark Clark called timeout to settle down the girls. Only, he said nothing. Jenna Hostetler spoke up before her coach could utter a word.

“She gave one of the best motivational speeches I’ve ever heard,’ Clark said. “I’m going to use it again.’

What did she say exactly?

“It’s a now-or-never type of feeling. We’ve got to stick together because this is what we’ve been working for all season,’ Hostetler said. “We have a lot of heart.’

It worked. The Jaguars earned the next seven points on their way to a critical, and championship-winning, 16-14 set victory.

At one point, Strath Haven coach Kevin Haney, even as his team surrendered yet another advantage, admired what he was watching.

“I caught myself midway through the fifth game just enjoying it,’ Haney said. “You forget how much fun it is coaching in a championship. I was so happy that we had a chance.’

Each set featured ties into the final five points. Garnet Valley and Strath Haven were even on the scoreboard 14 times in the second game alone. Both teams refused to back down. It made for a long evening.

“It’s exhausting,’ Hostetler said as she gestured to her hair drenched with sweat. She finished with 32 digs to lead the Jaguars. Elise Cummings dished out a game-high 48 assists, and Brianna Plush and Sydney Portale combined for 29 kills.

“It’s unreal,’ said Hostetler of the Central League title. “I’ve been waiting for this for four years. This is what we’ve played for since the preseason.’

On the other side, Haney could only praise his Panthers’ effort. Fisher led Strath Haven with 21 kills, while Casey Blum and Rachel Vresilovic had 22 digs between them. Maura Gibbs had 28 by herself.

“I’m just very proud, very proud,’ Haney said. “They had every opportunity to collapse and we hung in there.’

Those who enjoyed the first two installments of the 2014 rivalry will be happy to know there’s a chance for a third. Both Garnet Valley (15-2) and Strath Haven (19-5) are expected to grab high seeds in the District One Class AAA playoffs. Hostetler expects to see the Panthers again.

“I hope we do,’ the senior libero said. “It’s always fun to play against them.’

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