Upper Merion defeats Bishop Shanahan 3-1 in highly-anticipated District One final

ABINGTON — While the match didn’t begin pretty, it ended with sparkling gold for the Vikings as Upper Merion repeated as District One champions in a 3-1 (16-25, 25-9, 25-23, 25-20) victory over Bishop Shanahan Saturday afternoon.

Falling in the first set, the Vikings were down big, back on their heels, and honestly not looking like themselves at all. Trailing 23-11, the Eagles were playing the kind of game the Lady Vikings pride themselves on — strong serving, good passing, paired blocking and some enthused digging. It wasn’t pretty.

But, with nothing really hanging on the line, the Vikings started to play. A rally with setter Carlye Odorisio on the service line and Upper Merion started to battle. Despite losing the first set, the Vikings showed a glimpse of what kind of team they’re cut out to be.

“The first game, they played perfect volleyball until the very end and then I thought it was us who broke into their perfect game,’ said Upper Merion coach Tony Funsten. “We wouldn’t let them have a perfect game against us.’

While the rally was a bit too little, too late to save the first set, it was the moment that the Vikings gained at the end that carried over to the second, not so much for the Eagles riding high on the early win. Setter Kailyn McNamee, who served fabulously all match, helped the Vikings break out to a 7-2 lead that they never lost and only built upon.

“In the second set, (Coach) Funsten just told us to play the way we were at the end of the first set,’ McNamee said. “It got to us, and once we had the lead we just kept going until it ended 25-9.

“That really boosted our confidence.’

While early on the Eagles had taken the Vikings out of their system — triple blocking the middle, putting down kills with authority — it was the Upper Merion defense that dominated the flow of the contest.

“We showed that they can’t just swing as hard as they want to and get kills every single time — they’re going to get blocked, they’re going to get defended, they’re going to have to move to pass serve,’ Funsten said.

Between the twins, Emily and Ashley Shannon, and freshman strong side hitter Emma Andraka, the trio got a hand on every spike the Eagles sent their way. Andraka had the best game of her still budding career — putting 22 serve receives on the money and racking up 26 digs (the second consecutive game with that number).

“It’s one thing to compete as a senior, but as a freshman to be playing at this level, she’s the MVP in my mind,’ said middle hitter Carolyn Helenski. “She’s so talented and incredible.’

Andraka was best only by libero Ashley Shannon who had a game-high 34 digs.

“Emma played fabulously, and the other two played the way they always play,’ Funsten said.

“I know it always starts with a pass,’ Andraka said. “Without one, nothing else can function.’

Andraka had three digs in one rally and followed with an ace as the Vikings finished off one of their biggest victories of the year, 25-9.

“In middle school we were undefeated and they used to tell us to keep the other teams under 10, instead of just winning,’ Helenski said. “So, to beat a team at that level and to keep them under 10 was absolutely incredible.

“My heart was pumping.’

The match was decided in the third set. It was a dogfight from beginning to end. After splitting the first two, it had become a best of three match and the Vikings were poised to shift the odds in their favor.

Upper Merion took the early lead that extended at one point to six points when McNamee had back-to-back aces — she had six in the match — but with the Eagles’ Rita Shultz serving lights-out, Shanahan tied up the set at 16-all.

Shanahan was swinging high for the fingers tips and racking up kills on tools and missed blocks by the Vikings. But, each squad kept trading off side-outs until Upper Merion pulled to a slim two-point-lead at 20-18.

Middle hitter Nikki Carpenter tipped to an unplayable spot behind the middle blocker for the 24th point, and after another huge Andraka dig, setter Odorisio slipped a tip over the lip of the net for the game-winner, putting the Vikings up 2-1.

“The third set is always the one that determines what happens next,’ McNamee said. “I had a big weight lifted off my shoulders when we won the third, and going into the fourth we were down a couple points, but we kept pushing.’

“It was a best of three and whoever won that third set would win the match, whether it would be in four or in five,’ Funsten said.

Down 15-17, but with Andraka on the line, the Vikings surged ahead thanks to some quality serves and some timely dominance from Carpenter in the middle. Andraka’s ace at the 20th point, her third of the match, put the Vikings up 20-17. Shanahan surged back after a timeout, blocking Emily Shannon to make it 21-20, but when McNamee served back-to-back aces on the 22nd and 23rd points, the Lady Vikings could almost taste the victory.

But, the game wasn’t over yet.

“I’ve seen matches lost there … You can’t be excited, because if you’re excited you’re not doing things right,’ Funsten said to his players during the final Shanahan timeout. “I told them to let them be excited, they’re down two sets to one, they’re down 23-20, you just have to play evenly.’

Not going down without a fight, the Eagles scrambled to keep the rally alive on the final point, clinging to the hope of forcing a deciding fifth set, but another perfectly placed dink by Emily Shannon gave the Vikings more than enough reason to jump for joy as they earned their second consecutive district title, sixth overall.

“They were a challenge, and now we can say we were able to beat the toughest team,’ Helenski said.

Bishop Shanahan and Upper Merion have won the District One title a combined nine times in the last 11 years — the Eagles won in 2006, 2009 and 2012, while the Vikings won in 2004, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013 and now 2014. However, neither team had ever faced each other in the championship game.

Shanahan coach Greg Ashman, said that despite some injuries to his staff, he was more than proud of how his girls played.

“Anybody who wants to see good volleyball, this is the match they want and it finally happened,’ Ashman said. “I hope we delivered for the fans.’

For the Vikings, the win was more than sweet, but with states approaching, they have one final task to complete.

“It’s amazing, it’s just sinking in right now and I couldn’t be happier,’ Andraka said. “But, if anything, this will make us want to work harder and really show up in states and go far.’

The PIAA-AAA state tournament begins Tuesday, when Upper Merion will play Exeter at Wissahickon High School at 7:30 p.m.

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