MECHANICSBURG >> The feat to repeat is complete.
The expectations, the target on the back, the pressure, none could overtake the quality of the Pope John Paul II girls volleyball team.
Pope John Paul II solidified its place among the greatest teams in area history by winning its second consecutive PIAA Class 3A championship on Saturday courtesy of a 3-1 win (25-20, 21-25, 25-15, 25-21) over District 7 champion Hampton at Cumberland Valley High School.
The Pope John Paul II girls volleyball team poses with the PIAA championship trophy after winning the PIAA 3A title on Nov. 18 at Cumberland Valley High School. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)
Pope John Paul II are the PIAA 3A girls volleyball champions defeating Hampton 3-1 pic.twitter.com/JYay4lT2Yg
— Austin Hertzog (@AustinHertzog) November 18, 2023
Last year’s title run, the Golden Panthers’ first, required magic in the clutch, two five-set wins in the state tournament, including an epic five-set final over North Catholic.
More seasoned and even more talented this fall, clutch wasn’t often required. Slightly less drama may have made it even more fulfilling.
“I think this is better than last year. I know last year it was like five sets, down-to-the-wire type of game,” said senior setter Madison Monahan. “But this year it was so much harder, all the expectations were kind of weighing down on us and we were able to push through that and win again. That just feels even better than last year.”
PJP (27-0) capped a second straight undefeated season, a winning streak that extended to 54 matches and 735 days while dealing Hampton (24-1) its first loss.
A special senior class that features Monahan, Gabriella Cooper, Hutton Cordrey, Gabriella Manza, Cindy Jin, Natalie RIcevuto and Merideth Oister were the engine behind a powerhouse that is the first Pioneer Athletic Conference team to achieve repeat state titles as a team in 20 years. Only Perkiomen Valley field hockey in 1986 and 1987 and Pottstown boys’ track and field in 1993 and 1994 have accomplished the feat.
“I’m really excited,” said senior libero Cooper. “I can’t stop smiling. It’s crazy because almost all of us have been playing together since we were 12. I think that’s just great that we came this far all together as a team. Even though some did split up in some (club) teams, we still come together and push through.”
“It’s surreal to do it again because it’s so hard,” said outside hitter Cordrey.
Pope John Paul II’s seniors receive the PIAA championship trophy after defeating Hampton to win the PIAA 3A championship on Nov. 18 at Cumberland Valley High School. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)
Pope John Paul II’s Maeve Gallagher (21) leaps in celebration after defeating Hampton to win the PIAA 3A championship on Nov. 18 at Cumberland Valley High School. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)
At the finish line, there was the satisfaction of victory, coupled with another emotion only teams with lofty expectations experience.
“Relief,” PJP head coach Ryan Sell said. “Because there’s a lot of pressure in general. Especially when you return most of your lineup. The kids feel it too. I felt they handled it really, really well. This senior group is really, really good. They kept the kids fairly loose at practice. Our last two weeks, I think practice has probably been the best it’s been all year.
“This group is so special.”
Cordrey was an X-factor with a game-high 17 kills, many of the tipped variety going for guile over power, along with 20 digs. Ricevuto (14 kills), junior Maeve Gallagher (13) and sophomore Norah Busch (10) also registered double-digit kills.
Pope John Paul II senior Natalie Ricevuto hits through two Hampton blockers during the PIAA 3A championship on Nov. 18 at Cumberland Valley High School. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)
Pope John Paul II’s Gabriella Cooper receives serve against Hampton during the PIAA 3A championship on Nov. 18 at Cumberland Valley High School. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)
Monahan was reliable as ever with 47 assists and 23 digs. Cooper also logged 17 digs, in addition to Oister (9), Gallagher (8) and Jin (6) making the PJP back line a beast to beat for Hampton.
“Our game plan was really good and sometimes when you have a really good game plan but the kids forget,” said Sell, who is assisted by Josh McNulty and Kim Thom. “But today for the most part our kids remembered what they were supposed to do in certain situations. Hutton scored like five or six points on tips, which we talked about all week. At a high level, if you can execute a game plan and the other team doesn’t adjust, just keep going with the game plan.”
The experience of last year allowed PJP to carry less nerves into the final.
“We used that to our ability, knew that we had a crowd and know how to play with a crowd,” Cooper said. “We just had to make sure that we were the first ones to get our nerves away and make sure we’re playing our own game.”
The Golden Panthers were required to dig in Saturday in the third set after losing four straight points to close the second, 25-21. It was just their third set dropped this season.
“I’m really pleased because I feel like towards the end (of the second set) it was our errors that were getting them on top,” Cordrey said. “I feel like we just had our goldfish mentality, as we like to call it, and we didn’t let that affect us and we had a brand new game.”
PJP came out strong in the third with a service run by Cordrey and never looked back, convincingly taking the third 25-15, then staying in front wire-to-wire in the decisive fourth set.
PJP’s seniors end their careers with two PAC championships, four District 1 titles, and two PIAA championship trophies.
“I will miss this team so much,” Monahan said. “This has been the best team I’ve ever been on. The family-like culture that we have, it’s unmatched.”
Pope John Paul II’s Hutton Cordrey (8) bites her medal after the Golden Panthers won the PIAA 3A championship on Nov. 18 at Cumberland Valley High School. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)
The grind for greatness weighed on the Golden Panthers early in the season. Cooper and Cordrey, who will continue their volleyball careers together at Rowan University, spoke to being disconnected in the regular season.
“There was a point where like no one was connecting. We made sure to really have a talk about it,” Cooper said. “I think that really pushed us to go further.”
“It really helped us a lot,” Cordrey said. “It was right before playoffs and I feel like it made us more close and we all were like on the same page that we really want to win this year.”
PJP again became a team with repeat state title potential, potential that was fulfilled Saturday.
“We couldn’t make it any further than this. It’s bittersweet it’s over,” Cordrey said. “But we did our best and we came out on top.”
Pope John Paul II players celebrate after match point to defeat Hampton and win the PIAA 3A championship on Nov. 18 at Cumberland Valley High School. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)