Upper Dublin sweeps Lower Merion for first-ever postseason win

UPPER DUBLIN — Just walking onto the court Tuesday night would have been enough to qualify it as a great season for the Upper Dublin girls volleyball team.

Not only had the Flying Cardinals qualified for the District 1 playoffs for the first time in program history, they had earned the No. 16 seed in Class AAA and the right to host a first-round game. Not bad, but for the group of seniors that had set the foundation for this run, it wasn’t quite time to call it a career just yet.

With the right mix of balance, defense, serving and overall sound play, Upper Dublin defeated Lower Merion 3-0 (25-19, 26-24, 25-19) to win its first-ever playoff game.

“It means a whole lot to me,’ senior outside hitter Melanie Phifer said. “I’ve been on this team for four years now and each year we’ve progressively gotten better. To be on the team that’s making history, it’s such a great feeling.’

The Cardinals came out in Game 1 with plenty of energy, but they didn’t let that energy affect them in a negative way. Phifer got the match off on the right foot with a service ace to open play and UD was up 7-3 in the blink of an eye.

Senior outside Taylor Stek was a big reason, with three early kills. Lower Merion showed its pedigree by rallying back to make it 10-8, but kills by Sarah Dennin and Bryn Stek, followed by a combo block from the pair, returned it to 14-8.

Lower Merion picked up a point here and there, but the Cardinals were clearly in control, easily shaking off a late three-point run by the Aces before Taylor Stek ended it with a big kill.

“They had a lot of energy and they were very excited with the first time getting to districts,’ Upper Dublin coach Paul Choi said. “That win was awesome.’

Choi had been able to do a little homework on Lower Merion, and adjusted his defense accordingly. The main focus was powerful outside hitter Liv King, who let it rip early and often.

King had five kills in the first game, but Upper Dublin’s overall defense was rock solid, anchored by freshman libero Maggie Weglos.

“I have to give so much credit to my libero,’ Choi said. “She hasn’t been practicing too much with us, but she really stepped up in that role and did an awesome job passing, digging, setting or whatever she had to do.’

Weglos was replaced by Gabbi Johnson for Games 2 and 3, but the production stayed right where it needed to.

Phifer got the Cardinals off to a soaring start in Game 2, sandwiching a pair of aces between two Lower Merion errors as UD went up 5-0. Lower Merion came back to take a 9-8 lead on a kill by Jess Larkin, though King did the bulk of the damage with three kills in that span.

A kill by Taylor Stek tied it at 9-9, then the senior took over behind the service line, ripping off an ace on her first serve. Bryn Stek got the offense into a rhythm, setting sophomore Jenny McAneny for two kills and Phifer for another.

“Everyone on our team has a lot of potential and a lot of talent,’ Phifer said. “Everyone can play everywhere, pretty much.’

The Cardinals’ six-point cushion at 20-14 didn’t last long, as a combination of UD errors and Maya Toib’s serving staked the Aces to a 22-21 lead. A couple of Lower Merion errors put UD back up, 23-22 before McAneny took over. The sophomore accounted for Upper Dublin’s final three points, striking down back-to-back kills after a pair of hitting errors by the Cards tied it at 24-24.

“We’ve been working a lot with Jenny from the beginning of the season to now,’ Choi said. “She’s progressed from her ball-handling skills to her hitting skills. She brings a lot of fire on her kills, so that definitely helps us out.’

Down 2-0, Lower Merion finally found its legs to start Game 3. A rare serving miscue by Phifer prevent the Cardinals from building an early lead and the Aces built a 10-5 lead right after Choi had called for a timeout.

Phifer stopped the ship from rocking with a big kill to make it 10-6 and put Johnson behind the line. The libero’s run started off with another kill by Phifer before Johnson ripped off consecutive aces and a Lower Merion hitting error tied it 10-10.

“Communication and playing as a team really gave us what we needed to win,’ Phifer said. “We were able to stop the play and end it, instead of keeping rallies going.’

McAneny and Dennin teamed up for a big block to go back in front briefly before the key rally ended on a hitting error. Neither team gained much of an advantage for a few points until Taylor Stek powered down a kill at 16-14.

The senior followed that up with a solo block, a net violation by the Aces made it 18-14 and Stek continued with back-to-back kills, all with Bryn Stek serving it up.

“When we keep the serves, it lets us to keep that momentum,’ Phifer said. “We wanted to keep the serve, so we all tried really hard to work as a team so that one person could keep serving.’

McAneny unleashed her howitzer of a right arm for two kills, coupled with a shot by Phifer, to make it 23-16. The Cards handed back two points on errors before Taylor Stek stopped it with a kill to bring up match point.

A hitting error delayed the celebration, but the next serve delivered it, when Bryn Stek set one up to the right side, where Taylor Stek put it down to send Upper Dublin to its first-ever district win.

“It feels awesome,’ Phifer said. “We’ve never done this before, ever in the history of Upper Dublin volleyball. It’s the greatest season yet and I’m really excited about it.’

The next step for the Cardinals is a date with top-seeded Pennridge Thursday evening. The Rams pose a big test, but the Cardinals are confident, especially after facing Pennridge during the preseason.

“Being able to see them again, knowing they’re No. 1 in our district, the (players) are fired up for that,’ Choi said.

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