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Pope John Paul II stays perfect with sweep of Upper Merion

Pope John Paul II’s Chelsea Harvey, left, and Hanna Tulli, right, go up for a block against Upper Merion’s Sophie Gammarino. (Owen McCue - MediaNews Group)

ROYERSFORD >> Upper Merion had Pope John Paul II’s number last season.

Along with two regular season wins, the Vikings defeated the Golden Panthers in the Pioneer Athletic Conference championship game.

While she enjoyed the battles with Upper Merion last season, PJP junior setter Chelsea Harvey admitted it was a lot more fun to be on the other side of one of those contests Wednesday after her team’s 3-0 win over their PAC Frontier rival.

“Last year it was fun with the challenge,” said Harvey, who had 35 assists in the win. “It was always a good time playing them. It was a really strong rivalry. This year beating them was amazing. It was so much fun.”

From left, Pope John Paul II’s Grace Cooper, Haley Spotts and Sarah Ward celebrate a PJP point against Upper Merion on Wednesday. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

Pope John Paul II came into this week without dropping a set through its first six games, but also knowing that two of its toughest challenges lay ahead.

The Golden Panthers passed the first test Monday, knocking off previously undefeated Villa Maria Academy, which defeated PJP in the District 1-3A title game last season, in straight sets.

PJP (8-0, 7-0 PAC) handled the Vikings in the first two sets Monday, winning 25-12 and 25-18, respectively, before holding off a late Upper Merion rally in the third set to win 25-20 and stay unblemished this season.

“We had that a little bit against Villa but not a lot for the most part (this season),” Harvey said of the competitive third set. “It was a good experience because it showed what kind of team we are.”

Pope John Paul II’s Grace Cooper makes a dig as Tea Pasquale shouts instructions behind her. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

Senior Tea Pasquale had 20 digs and junior Jessica Donovan added 16 digs and four aces for PJP in Wednesday’s win.

Junior middle hitter Hanna Tulli led the Golden Panthers with 18 kills, while senior Sarah Ward and junior Lauren Phillips combined for 10 kills at outside hitter.

“Our hitters are our strongest this year,” Tulli said. “We have really good defense as well. When we’re blocking well, our passers can set us up for success.”

Following two straight undefeated regular seasons in conference play, Upper Merion dropped its first PAC contest in more than two years to Boyertown last week.

The Vikings returned some varsity experience from last year’s group, including senior middle hitter Gretchen Bahmueller and senior outside hitter Jill Demcher, but the departure of four four-year varsity players has kept Upper Merion (6-3, 3-2 PAC) from its same dominance of the past two seasons in PAC play.

“It’s a brand new team,” Upper Merion coach Tony Funsten said. “We just have to keep getting better. When you play really good teams, usually your weakness will be exposed, and I think they were exposed today. Sometimes they need to be exposed to the players themselves for them to get better.”

Upper Merion’s Annamarie Marsh (14) sets the ball Wednesday against Pope John Paul II. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

Upper Merion’s comeback attempt in the third set Wednesday was a positive sign for the rest of the season, including a rematch with PJP on Oct. 10.

After dropping the first two sets, Upper Merion came out fired up in the third set, taking an 11-10 lead. PJP eventually took a one-point lead and rallied off six consecutive points to take control of the set, 20-13.

The Vikings fought back, however, scoring five of the next six points to close the gap to 21-19, before the Golden Panthers shut the door for good.

“I did like our resolve,” Funsten said. “We could have quit at 20-13. We put some pressure on them, made some plays … We are competitors. We have good competitors on this team. We have experienced players. They just haven’t been starters.”

Both Tulli and Harvey noted the on and off court chemistry the Golden Panthers have built up over the past few seasons has been a driving force in their strong start.

PJP faces Norristown on Friday and Pottsgrove next Monday before playing undefeated Boyertown next Wednesday.

“I think we’re having really good chemistry and energy out there,” Tulli said. “Everyone’s really supportive and we just have to keep that up.”

Pope John Paul II’s Hanna Tulli (22) attempts to score a point Wednesday against Upper Merion. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

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