Volleyball: The Central League finds its pecking order at the top

Maria Nicolaides, right, and Garnet Valley are the team to beat in the Central League. TIMES STAFF/JULIA WILKINSON

Maria Nicolaides, right, and Garnet Valley are the team to beat in the Central League.
TIMES STAFF/JULIA WILKINSON

The mere fact that Garnet Valley beat Strath Haven yesterday, 3-1, for first place in the Central League wasn’t what surprised me.

I ranked the Panthers at No. 1 and the Jaguars No. 2 in the preseason Super 7 (speaking of those, check back Sunday or Monday for the latest one) and in my mind, I basically deemed them to be even. You know the deal. The two dominant powerhouses of the league that have traded championships over the past two years and both had a good group of players back, so a coin flip might have been the best way to pick the No. 1 team.

Um, maybe not so much. What surprised me was how easy it looked for Garnet Valley to put aside a very good Panthers team, especially with a group that was deemed by many to be lacking stars, but definitely not depth.

In the end, that depth took a major toll on Strath Haven and yes, there was at least one star on coach Mark Clark‘s team.

That star was libero Jenna Hostetler, who was all over the court for the Jaguars. Hostetler led a really stingy defensive effort that was able to limit big Strath Haven hitters Alice Roberts and Bridget Scott and make the other Panthers beat them. Strath Haven didn’t do that, thanks in large part to Hostetler’s determination and leadership. You can read more about it in the earlier link, but the one thing that’s really noticeable about Hostetler is how Garnet Valley feeds off of her energy. When she’s on – and goodness, was she on yesterday – it seems like the Jaguars crank up the intensity.

“Our girls are playing great defense,” Clark said. “That’s what we’re built on, playing great defense, and that opens up our hitting. (Hostetler) is all over the court. The girl covers so much ground, it’s awesome. Then you put her back in her serve and she can go on streaks. Her defense is stellar. She’s leading the court back there. She’s talking to the other players. She’s in a comfort zone when she’s back there.”

She most certainly is. Our photographer, Julia Wilkinson, snapped this shot* of me in amazement at Hostetler’s performance.

This may or may not really be me watching Garnet Valley yesterday. PHOTO COURTESY OF MGOBLOG.COM

This may or may not really be me watching Garnet Valley yesterday.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MGOBLOG.COM

All joking aside, Hostetler’s effort was incredible, but she also had plenty of help. Brianna Plush was highly effective on the outside and middles Kiley Price and Maria Nicolaides were also excellent. I was a bit surprised at how much success the duo had against a bigger Panthers team, but they proved to be more than adequate at the net and won that battle despite a standout effort from freshman outside hitter turned middle blocker Brianna Fisher. Fisher will probably move back outside once Scott and Roberts graduate, but she showed that she’s no slouch in the middle, either.

So does this win put an even bigger target on the Jaguars’ backs?

“Absolutely,” Hostetler said. “I wouldn’t doubt it at all. I think it’s a good thing. I think it gives people more of a challenge to push themselves to have a good game against us. We like a challenge.”

“I love it,” Plush said of wearing that target. “Mr. Clark said we were kind of flying under the radar this year after losing (two-time All-Delco) Ellie Ezekiel, but we’re back now and everybody’s coming after us, but we’re stronger than ever.”

ooo

The loss, though, had to be disappointing for Strath Haven coach Kevin Haney in more ways than one. There’s ceding the top spot to your biggest rival, of course, but there’s also the fact that the Panthers struggled mightily as a defensive unit. There were wide-open areas for Garnet Valley to swing into and even when those areas were closed off at times, there were a ton of mistakes and miscommunication. It’s not the end of the world, of course. There’s a long way to go before playoffs, but Haney came into the season thinking that this was one of his best defensive teams … ever?

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re putting some young kids in the spotlight, which we’ll continue to do, but we just have to get better and turn our attention to (Friday opponent) Conestoga,” Haney said. “… It was a pretty big step backward (defensively), but any program that feels like it’s going to have some success also has to be realistic and understand that there are going to be some peaks and valleys and this is just one of those valleys. I think we’ll have a good practice (today) and get back after it Friday.”

ooo

Roberts took over the third game in style for the Panthers, a game in which she couldn’t be stopped by that vaunted Garnet Valley defense, and was Strath Haven’s best player from start to finish. That, however, didn’t stop her from shouldering the blame for the loss.

“It’s tough, really tough,” Roberts said. “They played really well. I, personally, did not lead my team. I take responsibility for that. We were flat and we didn’t play our game. … I really, really hate losing so much that I should have led my team from point one of the first game, which I didn’t, and (the third game) was me stepping up and being a leader.”

ooo

So what does this mean for the league’s playoff picture? Well, if you believe the past three years, it’s that Garnet Valley will not win the league title. Since the league went to the format it employs today where an undefeated No. 1 team gets a bye in the semifinals, that team is 0-3 in the championship. It’s not that easy, though, because the Jaguars look poised to handle any and all comers. Garnet Valley’s toughest test left is a rematch with Penncrest, but after seeing the Jaguars, Lions and Panthers play this week, I’ll take the Jaguars to go unbeaten. The Panthers and Lions have yet to play each other, but the match will be at night at Strath Haven. That has basically been an automatic win for the Panthers in recent years, especially against league foes. The last Central League team to win at Strath Haven, though?

Penncrest, of course. One match that also looms large is the Panthers traveling to Haverford Sept. 27. The Fords, Lions and Springfield all have one league loss, so the pecking order in the second tier isn’t quite as distinguished. Someone will have to step up for that No. 3 (or better?) spot. Who will it be?

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