POTTSVILLE – They said one team didn't have enough experience on the court to be there.
They said another team didn't have enough wins in the league to be there.
But Marian and Panther Valley both found their way to Martz Hall last night as Division Champions to compete in the Schuylkill League Tournament.
However, it was the one team that no one seemed to be talking about that proved it deserved to be there all along.
Last night, Tri-Valley claimed its first Schuylkill League championship since 2002, as the Bulldogs knocked off defending league champion Marian in a five-game thriller, 21-25, 25-21, 19-25, 25-20, 15-11.
"Right now, we're not playing as a team and we're not moving along as a team," stated Marian head coach John "Doc" Fallabel. "They (Tri-Valley) had a court full of seniors and juniors, and it showed. We had a court full of underclassmen that are starting to doubt themselves."
"I thought we played good in spurts tonight," added Fallabel. "It was a great match that was a lot of fun, but they (Tri-Valley) got the digs when they needed to, they got the serves when they needed to, and they got the kills when they needed to."
Marian started out by taking the first game 25-21, but the Bulldogs knotted things up with a 25-21 win of their own in game two.
In both games, the Fillies dug themselves in an early hole, as they trailed 5-1 to start the first game and found themselves in a 12-4 deficit in game two.
After falling behind 4-1 to start the third game, Marian turned to its outside hitters, as four kills from Marykate Sherkness and two kills from Grace Boyle put the Fillies ahead 10-5. Tri-Valley closed the gap to 14-12, but two consecutive kills by freshman Emily Pilla and another two kills from Boyle expanded the lead to 22-14 and paved the way to the game three victory.
Tri-Valley jumped out to a 13-6 lead in the fourth game behind a five-point service run by Tara Nahodil. However, it was the play of Nahodil in the middle that made all the difference, as the 6-4 junior middle hitter accounted for 17 kills and eight blocks.
"Their big girl really did well tonight," stated Fallabel. "She was the key to their success, especially with blocking."
"But again, our setter is a freshman and she needs to realize that when their big girl is lining up right next to their setter to block our outside hitters, we need to exploit the other three-quarters of the net. Set back, set middle, set somewhere where there isn't any blocks. Tonight we had 19 middle attacks, 20 right side attacks and 116 outside attacks."
With a 25-20 victory, Tri-Valley evened the match at two games apiece, setting up a winner-take-all fifth game.
For the first time of the night, Marian started off a game with a lead (2-0), but it was quick-lived as Makenzie Stutzman fired off two aces to give the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead. Both teams exchanged point for point over the next 14 serves, with no team holding more than a one-point lead. However, a third Stutzman ace gave Tri-Valley an 11-9 lead and the Bulldogs then turned the game over to Nahodil, as she finished off the final four Tri-Valley points with kills.
Marian swept Tri-Valley in the regular season by scores of 25-18, 25-14, 25-11.
"We embarrassed them on their own home court in the regular season, but that's when our team was peaking," added Fallabel. "We were coming off the Clarion Tournament and that's when we were playing our best volleyball of the season."
Sherkness tallied 23 kills in the championship match in addition to 17 digs. Grace Boyle (14 kills), Emily Pilla (10 kills, 10 digs), Nikki Collevechio (28 digs) and Abby O'Donnell (47 assists, seven digs) also played well for Marian (14-2).
Marian advanced to last night's championship game with a 25-14, 25-19, 15-25, 25-10 victory over Panther Valley (13-4).
Marykate Sherkness led the Fillies in the first two games, combining for 15 of her 25 kills.
With the game tied at 11-11 in the third game, a four-point service run by Kristyn Gates and two Chissy Micholik kills gave the Panthers a 16-11 lead. Marian tried to rally, but Micholik served out the final four points of the game for the 25-15 victory.
However, Marian picked itself right back up to start off the fourth game, as a six-point service run from Nikki Collevechio gave the Fillies an 8-1 lead. Four-point service runs by Emily Pilla and Rebecca Hartman upped the lead to double-digits and Sherkness slammed the door shut on the Panthers with three consecutive kills to end the match.
"Our girls were definitely excited to get here given the circumstances, but we just didn't last long enough," said Panther Valley head coach Nancy Filer. "I'm proud of our girls, but Marian's a good team and they made the plays when they needed to tonight."
Amy Yusella led Panther Valley with 13 kills, nine service points and seven digs, while Micholik chipped in with nine kills, seven assists, 11 service points and four aces. Deanna Focht (four kills, six blocks, six digs), Steph Kachelries (seven service points, seven digs) and Gates (10 assists, five service points) also played a role for the Panthers.
In the other semifinal match, Tri-Valley was a 16-25, 27-25, 25-14, 25-19 winner over Pottsville (14-2).