Upper Merion dominates Downingtown East, advances to District One semifinals

UPPER MERION — Familiar foes faced off in the District One volleyball quarterfinals on Tuesday night at Upper Merion when the Vikings faced the Cougars of Downingtown East in a battle for a berth in the state championships.

A closely contested first set saw the two squads go back-and-forth as each put together multi-point rallies with the Vikings ultimately piecing together the win. However, after starting the second set down six points to zero, the Vikings put together one of the finest unified efforts they’ve pieced together all season.

Behind stellar blocking of middle-hitter Nikki Carpenter and some shutdown serving by Carlye Odorisio, the Vikings surged to a dominating victory that carried right through the third set in a sweep of the Cougars (25-19, 25-14, 25-17).

“We can play better, but we can’t block better and I don’t think we can play defense better,’ Funsten said.

It was Upper Merion’s serve and defend that put the Cougars back on their heels in the second set. Emily Shannon’s serving ace was the first bright spot of their early comeback, not to mention her twin sister Ashley’s yeoman’s job of getting a hand on almost ever Cougar attack — the two combined for 36 digs.

Carpenter, who Funsten said seems to turn it on every year against East, had two straight blocks to take the lead 12-11 in the second set, a 12-5 run. Ashley Shannon had a tremendous dig on the Vikings’ 13th point, getting one outstretched arm on the ball and sending a liner back to setter Odorisio, who got it up and a Vikings’ player put it down.

“It was like she had a magnet,’ Funsten said. “Everything they touched it was going right to Nikki and she was putting it down.’

Odorisio served four aces during her stretch on the line, including back-to-back winners on the 16th and 17th points. Funsten said that her serving was a long-awaited return to form.

“As I started with my run I started picking it up, finding the weakest player and aiming for them,’ Odorisio said. “The crowd and teammates were cheering us on, it was just great.’

Carpenter and Carolyn Helenski combined for 11 blocks out of the middle, with Carpenter setting the pace with seven downs on 11 touches. Helenski said she was simply pooling from the energy her teammate had come out with.

“When we were down, I was on the court and I always get really, really into the game, so I was really mad,’ Helenski said. “Once we started coming back you use that anger to push you … We got in this really aggressive mood and that helped us.’

Carpenter excelled at floating around the net and tracking down solo blocks and touches on free balls, doing much more than just blocking and sealing. The crowd and her teammates were going absolutely crazy watching the Vikings at peak performance in the final home game of the season, and for many of the players’ careers. Carpenter was unstoppable, and single-handedly forced the Cougars to change their attack and tentatively worked from the outside, but the energy she fostered gave her fellow players that final push.

“It was just a team effort all around,’ Carpenter said. “It wasn’t just me blocking, it was great defense, we were able to come together when we needed to.’

After their tremendous rally in the second, the Vikings held onto an early lead in the third set and finishing with an exclamation point: another Carpenter block.

“It didn’t help that we didn’t pass well,’ said coach Peggy Hopton. “Upper Merion’s strength is their block, we made it easy for them.’

With the win, the Vikings are guaranteed a berth in the state championships, but first they will face Garnet Valley in the semifinals at Abington High School, Thursday at 6 p.m.

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