Upper Merion tops Garnet Valley, reaches district final

ABINGTON — Proving themselves to be every bit the defending District One champions, the Upper Merion Vikings fought through deficits and difficulties on Thursday night against Garnet Valley, who in multiple sets pushed the Vikings to the limit.

However, some big runs, strong serving and some charged plays gave the Vikings the edge they needed in a 3-1 victory (25-16, 21-25, 25-20, 25-17), sending them back to the District One final against Bishop Shanahan, to be played 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Abington High School.

“We’re the defending district champions, we’re not giving it up,’ said Upper Merion coach Tony Funsten. “They’re going to have to take it from us, knock us down and wrestle it from us.’

Garnet Valley did just that, up as many as five points in the first set. Upper Merion, playing from behind much of the first set, went on an 8-0 run thanks to some brilliance at the service line by setter/weak-side hitter, Kailyn McNamee. Carolyn Helenski had four points in the stretch — two blocks and two kills.

The second game, however, proved to be much more difficult for the Vikings. As they trailed for the entirety of the set, save for a 5-5 tie. Garnet Valley served aggressively and did what Upper Merion had in the first game — kept them out of system. However, a Vikings rally to end the game gave them some much-needed confidence.

“It boosted our confidence enough to continue, but there’s still pressure on us that they could still come back,’ McNamee said.

“If you get spanked, I don’t care how good you are, you’ll start doubting yourself,’ Funsten said. “But if you work your way back into the game … We were excited to go into the next set.’

Through more than half of the exhaustingly long third set, no clear winner was established until the Vikings pulled ahead after a long rally broke the 18-18 tie. Despite breaking out to an early lead, the Jaguars waned as they gave points away both on service errors and tentative serving that enabled the Vikings to run their attack at the net.

After Garnet Valley had established a firm service game in the first two sets, the Vikings took them out of rhythm by putting them back on their heels. As the Upper Merion lead grew, the Jaguars were less likely to serve and attack aggressively.

“They’re aggressive, but you can’t go ace-fault every time,’ Funsten said. “It puts a lot of pressure on your own team to serve aggressively.’

Freshman Emma Andraka made her presence known on all ends of the court. At the net she had the second-most kills with nine and had 26 digs. Surround by a team full of seniors with years of practice playing in the postseason, she stepped up at the most important time.

“It was scary at first, but all the seniors have been really supportive and they’ve helped me through the process and how this thing goes,’ Andraka said. “It was definitely nerve-racking, but once we started playing it was okay.’

McNamee finished with a team-high 21 assists in one of her best performances since Funsten changed the offense from a 5-1 to a 6-2, splitting time between both McNamee and Carlye Odorisio. The main advantage behind running an offense with two setters is that it enables the team to have three attackers at the net at all times.

“It’s easy when you look at your teammates’ expressions and see how hard we really want this,’ McNamee said. “In practice we’ve been working so hard and this is what we’re waiting for — we’re waiting to go to districts, we’re waiting to go to states.’

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