Strath Haven tries Central title on for size

LOWER MERION >> Anyone who thought Strath Haven was going to cruise to its fourth Central League volleyball title in the last six years after the Panthers took the opening game of the league final against Ridley Wednesday night obviously failed to remember what happened when the teams met five weeks ago in the regular season.
Strath Haven had to win the last three games to pull out a five-set victory over the Green Raiders so the Panthers knew this was going to be just as tough, and it was.
Strath Haven used its size advantage to get past the gritty Green Raiders, 3-1, in front of a spirited crowd at Harriton High School.
“We know how scrappy Ridley always is and this team is no exception,” Strath Haven coach Kevin Haney said. “They’re well-coached and they’re as tough as any team we’ve seen all season. We were lucky to barely get by them earlier in the season.
“They’re just a really bad matchup for us. They do things that make us uncomfortable. They serve aggressively and they’re able hit through the gaps in our blocks. Kristen (Schaffer, the Ridley coach) did a great job of game-planning for us tonight.”
For Haney, Strath Haven’s 25-17, 20-25, 25-20, 25-19 victory could be a going-away present. He said he was all but certain that this will be his last season as the Panthers’ head coach after 14 years at the helm.
“There’s an old adage that I buy into,” said Haney, who has 218 career wins at Strath Haven. “Don’t leave too soon, but don’t stay too long. I just think that it’s just time to head in a different direction. I still want to talk to my family a little bit, but we’re pretty comfortable that this is it for us.”
The news that this could be Haney’s last year caught the Strath Haven players by surprise.
“I didn’t know that,” senior setter Maddie Caspari said. “He didn’t say anything to us.”
“We knew nothing about it,” added All-Delco middle blocker Rachel Vresilovic. “He’s been a great coach for 14 years.”
If this was Haney’s final Central League title, the Green Raiders (17-6 overall) made the Panthers earn it. Ridley rallied from a 17-10 deficit to take the second set. The Green Raiders scored the last seven points to climb out of a 22-18 hole. Ridley carried that momentum into the third set. The Green Raiders jumped out to a 7-2 lead before the Panthers (17-3) turned things around.
Ridley stayed alive with defense. The Green Raiders had 64 digs and their ability to keep the ball alive made the Panthers work to win the final two games.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” Caspari said. “The first time we played them it was very intense and tonight was the same thing.”
Strath Haven’s defense was good, too. The Panthers matched the Green Raiders dig for dig and then some. Strath Haven had 70 digs overall. Libero Grace Sullivan led the way with 18.
In the end, though, Vresilovic, fellow middle blocker Rachel Kent and outside hitters Bree Fisher and Casey Blum proved to be too much for the Green Raiders. Fisher smashed 13 kills and had 10 digs. Blum also had 13 kills and 11 digs. Vresilovic added 10 kills and three blocks. Kent only had four kills, but added seven combined blocks (five solo).
“Strath Haven is so powerful,” Schaffer said. “They have so many big hitters. They just wore us down.”
“They went to their big hitters,” added Melanie Malseed, who led the Green Raiders with nine kills, 18 digs and four blocks. “That’s what they do.”
That was by design.
“That’s the one thing we talked about in those last two timeouts,” Haney said. “We had to get back to being a little more physical offensively and we had to get a little more offensive-minded. I told the girls to trust themselves. Do the things they’re comfortable doing. The reason we lost last year (to Garnet Valley in the league final) is because we weren’t aggressive.”
Caspari made sure the Panthers pressed the attack. She finished with 33 assists and 10 digs, and most of her helpers came in the final two games. She had three assists on Strath Haven’s last four points in the match.
“That’s our strength,” Caspari said. “We have five strong girls who can really hit and it’s my job to get the ball to them, and that’s what I did.”
It was what the Panthers needed to get past a gritty Ridley team to win their fourth Central League title in the last six years.
“That’s unreal,” Haney said.
In the Catholic League:
Bonner-Prendergast 3, Neumann-Goretti 0 >> The Pandas made quick work of the Saints with wins of 25-9, 25-10 and 25-8. Veronica Kirchner finished with 10 kills. Megan Cummings sparked the offense with 19 assists. The win gets Bonner-Prendie back to .500 in the league at 5-5. The Pandas are 7-9 overall.
In nonleague play:
Academy Park 3, Norristown 2 >> Three of the five games were decided by two points. The fourth one went to Norristown 28-26, but it was the Knights who emerged with a victory thanks to a 15-11 win in the fifth set.
Trea-sure Ketter’s 15 kills and seven blocks made the difference for Academy Park (17-3, 12-0), which also got strong efforts from Mariah Waller (seven kills, three aces) and Tayler Eiserman (six kills, two aces).

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