Sacred Heart spikes familar foe, captures district title

LOWER MERION >> From Michelle Gatta’s perspective, she’s lucky to have inherited a group of four-year varsity starters at Sacred Heart that calls itself the “core four.”

The third-year Lions volleyball coach hasn’t seen a day at the school without her quartet of seniors Jessica McTaggert, Ally Schell, Lauren Kilroy and Kerri Corcoran.

“It’s going to be tough without them next year,” she said.

Sacred Heart's Juliana Michniak rockets a shot past Christopher Dock's Lanae Hunsberger (11) and Nicole Ford (13) during the Lions' 3-2  victory Thursday night for the District One Class AA title.
Sacred Heart’s Juliana Michniak rockets a shot past Christopher Dock’s Lanae Hunsberger (11) and Nicole Ford (13) during the Lions’ 3-2 victory Thursday night for the District One Class AA title.

But in the wake of a come-from-behind 3-2 thriller over Christopher Dock in what feels like the two schools’ annual District One Class A volleyball title match, next year didn’t matter much. For the Lions’ core four, along with some outside help, enabled Sacred Heart to snatch its second consecutive district crown by scores of 17-25, 25-20, 23-25, 25-19 and 15-12 at host site Harriton.

“I have a few prospects that I’m pretty excited to bring in, but I love watching them,” Gatta said of her seniors, which also includes Madison Schneider, who joined the varsity team this fall. “I can sit there and just be like, ‘How did she touch that?’ or ‘Kerri (Corcoran), that was a swing that I would be scared to pass.’ It’s just been the best three years — four for them — but three years for me with them.”

Contesting the District One title game with the Lansdale-based school is all this Sacred Heart team knows, players and coach alike. For the Lions’ seniors who have been here all along, Thursday’s latest triumph marked the third district-final defeat of the Pioneers in four seasons. Sacred Heart’s lone blip in that period came in the 2013 final by way of a 3-2 loss.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but we’re the only single A teams that can play volleyball,” Gatta said.

“It’s always a toss-up between who wins.”

Though the Lions’ 3-0 disposal (25-19, 25-21, 25-22) of Dock in a regular-season contest last month looks anything but a toss-up on paper, the Pioneers proved a tough out Thursday from the start.

Unlike a district final last fall in which Sacred Heart (16-8, 7-7 Catholic Academies League) jumped out to a 2-0 lead, the Lions found themselves facing elimination before they rallied to take the final two sets.

“It’s a good rivalry because there’s always something to look forward to at the end of the season,” Schell said. “We kind of always know it’s going to be versus them. It’s always an us against Dock mentality throughout the entire season.

“Even in regular-season when we played them, we were really excited. We were like guys, ‘We’re going to show them one thing and once we get to districts, we’ll show them another.’”

The Pioneers (14-6, 6-0 Bicentennial League) took the first and third sets behind the likes of hard-hitting senior Lanae Hunsberger, who paced Dock’s attack from the start.

“She’s always been a good hitter,” Schell, a libero who led Sacred Heart with 31 digs, said of Hunsberger. “We always know her as one of their best hitters and constantly someone we have to defend … it’s always fun to play against her.”

Back-and-forth play set the tone early in the fourth set. Neither team led by more than three points until the Lions

pulled away late for the six-point victory, helped by three McTaggert aces.

Sacred Heart won seven consecutive points early to jump ahead, 9-4, in the final game. Though Dock eventually got

Christopher Dock's Lanae Hunsberger (11) spikes the ball through through the defense of Sacred Heart's Juliana Michniak (8) and Maddie Schneider.
Christopher Dock’s Lanae Hunsberger (11) spikes the ball through through the defense of Sacred Heart’s Juliana Michniak (8) and Maddie Schneider.

within a point on two separate occasions, the Lions held on.

“They’ve always been a big match for us,” Dock coach Trish Hoover said of Sacred Heart. “We knew it would come down to us and them again, and once again a five-set match and a real battle. We didn’t reach one of our goals. We reached a lot of them, but this is the one we really wanted, so it’s tough.”

Though the Pioneers fell painfully close to their first district title in two seasons, Hoover said they’ve come a long way from that 3-0 defeat to their annual district rival.

“They made huge strides in their game throughout the season,” Hoover said. “I’m nothing but proud of what the girls did this year.”

As if anything else was to be expected, Kilroy (35 digs, three aces), McTaggert (29 assists), Corcoran (12 kills, three blocks) and Schell led the way all along.

Sophomore Juliana Michniak (six blocks, four kills) said collecting one last district crown for that longstanding group has been the team’s goal from the beginning. Though the Lions would like to get past the second round of the state Class A tournament this time, Thursday’s win was a big one.

“Winning it for the second time meant a lot, especially because of our seniors,” Michniak said. “They worked really hard throughout the year. Winning it today meant a lot because of the seniors.

“The feeling overall was overwhelming. I’m so happy.”

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