BY JEFF FALK
PALMYRA – Relatively speaking, girls’ scholastic volleyball locally is still in its developmental stage. And within those parameters, Palmyra’s program is still in its infancy.
But the Cougars’ rise into the area v-ball elite has been nothing short of meteoric.
On Tuesday night at Palmyra High School, the Cougars took another critical step towards a second straight Mid-Penn Colonial Division title by sweeping visiting Trinity. Despite facing modest deficits in all three games, Palmyra prevailed 25-13, 25-20, 25-23.
Amazingly, the triumph was Palmyra’s 34th in its last 36 matches, over the past two years. The Cougars, who graduated five key seniors from a squad which went undefeated during the 2013 regular season, are now 13-1 overall and 10-0 in the Colonial Division.
The program has displayed incredible improvement since going 13-6 in its inaugural 2010 campaign.
“I’ll tell you the reason. Do you want the answer?,” said Palmyra head coach Clark Sheaffer. “We have a tremendous feeder program at Palmyra. The feeder program is the real story. We try to fill spots. We rotated a lot of girls in tonight and they all contributed. It’s (the feeder program) something we had to start.
“I have some dedicated coaches,” continued Sheaffer. “That’s why we are successful, but we’re not near where we want to be. We’re trying to get up with the big dogs. The girls play year-round. They love it. I’m blessed. I couldn’t do it myself.”
After Palmyra captured the first two games, Trinity, now 7-6 overall and 6-4 in the division, threatened to prolong the match in Game Three, opening leads of 14-9 and 20-17. But on the serve of junior Samantha Houser, the Cougars rattled off three late points to tie the game at 20-apiece.
The third game was still deadlocked at 23, before the Cougars took the last two points to close out the game and the match.
“I thought we played one of the best home games we ever played,” said Sheaffer. “A lot of good things happened. A lot of good attacks. A lot of good passes. The girls were excited about it. It’s the tough teams we like to play. We love the challenge.
“Trinity has always been our rival,” Sheaffer continued. “They’ve always been our challenge. The last couple of years they’ve been the best team. It’s a fight. It’s a battle. They’re well-coached. They’re good players. They have a good history of volleyball.”
In the middle game, Palmyra rallied on the serve of Jayden Swann to turn a 13-9 deficit into a 15-13 lead. Later in the game, Palmyra ripped off six straight points on freshman Kirstin West’s serve to take a 21-17 lead it would not relinquish.
“When Kirstin West started really serving hard, that was a turning point,” said Sheaffer. “When I asked her to hit the spot, she really ripped it. That was a changer. That and the consistent serve from Kiley Atkins. When you’re facing a consistent serve, you have to perform or mess up.
“That (the Cougars trailed in all three games) is surprising,” added Sheaffer. “When you’re down in rally scoring, it’s tough to come back. Our confidence is high right now. They jumped on us when (Trinity’s 6-3 middle blocker, Alisah) Cash was in the front row. When she goes to the back, the advantage switches to us. When they (the Shamrocks) had one of their strengths on the bench, it allowed us to come back.”
Seniors Atkins and Monica Sheaffer enjoyed good service runs in the opening game. The Cougars rattled off 11 straight points during the middle of the game, turning a nine-all tie into an insurmountable 20-9 bulge.
“Kiley had a real good game at Hershey, and she’s keeping that ball rolling,” said Sheaffer. “She wants to play a lot, and she’s really performing for us. She’s peaking at the right time.
“They (the Shamrocks) jumped on us the next game and they went ahead,” Sheaffer added. “But it was a team effort. We have some athletes. Some of the girls play basketball, and they all play other sports. But they’re volleyball dedicated. They work hard and we push them.”
Statistically, the Cougars were led by M. Sheaffer and her ten kills, four blocks and two aces, while Molly Gundermann contributed nine kills and five blocks. West collected 18 assists and four aces.
“We went undefeated last year, so expectations are pretty high,” said C. Sheaffer. “We lost to Central Dauphin, and I think it was good for us. We have young girls. We had a much stronger team last year. Are we the same team? Of course not. But we are a decent team. We’re blessed. The program has been set up and the girls have definitely improved.
“Last year we went to districts and ran into York Suburban, and it was a tough loss because we could’ve gone to states,” concluded Sheaffer. “We didn’t go to states. But we established that as a goal at the beginning of the season. We said, ‘Let’s win the Colonial Division again.’ But we went from (Class) AA to AAA. Our goal is to get to districts and do our best and who knows.”