Academy of Notre Dame 2021 PAISAA Volleyball Champions
Academy of Notre Dame 2021 PAISAA Champions winning their 8th Consecutive State Title. (photo/Ryan Nix for PSD)
By: Ed Morrone
(photos/Ryan Nix for PSD)
FORT WASHINGTON, PA — As it turned out, the third time proved to be the charm in the Academy of Notre Dame volleyball’s quest to get its mojo back.
After dropping two five-set regular season heart-breaker matches to Agnes Irwin, the Irish relinquished the league title to the Owls, making it the first time since 2016 that Notre Dame didn’t claim both the Inter-Ac and PAISAA volleyball championships.
On Friday night, Agnes Irwin was attempting to knock the Irish off another perch in the PAISAA title match; coming into the evening, Notre Dame may have shed its Inter-Ac crown, but the team was still gunning for its eighth consecutive PAISAA championship. Following a disappointing end to its regular season, the Irish still had one opportunity to finish its season with a victory and send the program’s four decorated seniors off with a cemented championship legacy.
Junior middle blocker Margo Kemp unleashed a dominant performance for the Irish, notching a team-high 18 kills to go along with nine blocks and three aces en route to a convincing 3-1 win at Germantown Academy. Set scores were 25-19, 25-12, 24-26 and 25-20. Despite a late Agnes Irwin rally to stay alive in the third set, Kemp and the Irish were in control for much of the night, a stark contrast to the team’s previous two meetings which were both claimed by the Owls. The regular season crown was Agnes Irwin’s first in at least a decade.
It’s difficult in any sport for any one team to beat another three times in the same season, and Kemp and company seized their one final moment.
“This time, I think we knew what we had coming for us,” Kemp said of the feisty Owls. “We were much more prepared, and the energy was a lot higher. We really wanted this one, a lot. In the last game for our four seniors, this game really meant a lot to the entire team. We always knew we could do it, and it was just the amount of effort we knew that we had to put in.”
The first set started out on the seesaw, with the two squads trading points until Kemp ignited a rally with multiple kills, allowing the Irish to score five straight points and take a 13-9 lead that they would not relinquish. The second set wasn’t close, with Kemp and the Irish completely overwhelming the Owls from the get go.
Building a 2-0 lead out of the gate reduced some of Notre Dame’s tension, and the team seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd, which filled an entire half of the bleachers and was loud and boisterous the entire evening.
“Personally, I was really nervous for this game,” Kemp admitted afterward. “The big thing we focused on was just staying in the moment and not getting ahead of ourselves, even if it was the biggest game we played all year. I tried to stay energetic throughout, even when times got tough. Every single ball counted, and the whole team worked together and pulled each other along.”
Notre Dame nearly won this one in straight sets, jumping out to an early 7-2 lead before the Owls finally woke up, scoring 11 consecutive points to jump up to a 13-7 advantage. The Irish roared back, even holding a 24-21 lead before the Owls dug deep and scored the final five points of the set.
Suddenly, the Owls, led by fifth-year head coach Sarah Lawrence and senior captains Golda Mehl and Jenna Zwilling, had life.
Junior outside hitter Anahla Thomas also had a major impact, landing several ferocious and thunderous kills that the Irish had few answers for.
In one of the more accomplished seasons in the program’s recent history, winning the Inter-Ac Title two weeks prior, there was no chance Lawrence’s girls were going give up that easy.
2021 Agnes Irwin Team in PAISAA Final match went 7-1 in league play winning the Inter-Ac title.(photo/Ryan Nix for PSD)
“They turned the switch on and kept fighting,” Lawrence said. “It was a great way to extend the match. I’ve been pushing them all season to be comfortable in these challenging situations, to overcome and not be afraid of it. I can talk about it, but none of this season happens unless they buy in. They wrapped their hearts around it and just made this a really exciting season. It was such a pleasure and humbling experience to watch them grow in that way.
“I told them to be proud. Don’t hang your heads. They set a culture for their school and left a legacy doing what they did. It’s such a huge thing for young women to have that leadership quality heading into the real world, and I’ve got a lot of them.”
Unfortunately, as Lawrence also noted, the Owls spotted Notre Dame the first four points of the fourth and deciding set, and although Agnes Irwin continued to battle, the team never led again.
Agnes Irwin’s seven seniors got to taste a league title in their final go-round, but on this evening, it was the Irish’s four seniors, libero Ava Kelly, offensive attackers Katie Harrington and Marissa Bruno along with setter Maddie O’Meara, who would not be denied as champions.
“For the four of us to leave Notre Dame with the program’s eighth consecutive PAISAA championship was the most important thing on our agenda,” said O’Meara, who had 33 assists and seven aces in the win. “The Inter-Ac was important too, and we let that slip through our fingers; this one, we just started out much stronger and kept our energy consistent throughout the sets. We didn’t know what would happen, but we just wanted to give our best, and that’s what we got.”
The victory was also extra special for longtime head coach Mike Sheridan, who had left the program during the pandemic after 18 years and later joined the coaching staff at Penncrest, only to be called back into action when the Irish faced a sudden coaching vacancy in the midst of their season. Sheridan certainly didn’t expect to be back into this situation, yet here he was, holding yet another PAISAA championship plaque, with another medal hanging around his neck.
“I caught lightning in a bottle,” Sheridan said, the smile for his team still plastered across his face 30 minutes after the final point. “When I came back, things were a little unstructured, and we got it straightened out. When that happened, everyone got comfortable with each other on the court.
“The question was, when you lose two matches and the league title to a team, how will you respond? Four years ago, GA had beaten us twice and we came in and beat them in the PAISAA. I kept telling them that we were a good team, and it’s hard to beat a good team three times in a season. And Agnes Irwin, congratulations to them on the league title. They are a very talented team that never quit. I just thought our defense was lights out, and we kept attacking and trying to get Margo the ball.”
Academy of Notre Dame seniors, Ava Kelly, Katie Harrington, Marissa Bruno and Maddie O' Meara celebrate their State Title Victory. (photo/Ryan Nix for PSD)
The scariest prospect for the rest of the Inter-Ac is that Kemp will be back next year, as will talented holdovers such as, Katia Hemphill, Megan Dougherty and Maddi Brown, among others. Sheridan said he’d think about his own future for about a month before deciding if he’ll be back for a run at a ninth consecutive PAISAA title; if not, the Irish will always have this one, which felt especially sweet after the pandemic altered so much of the team’s high school careers.