2019’s wildly unpredictable Eastern Pennsylvania Conference girls volleyball tournament yielded a familiar – but unexpected – champion.
Sixth-seeded Parkland defeated fifth-seeded Bethlehem Catholic 25-13, 25-11, 25-27, 25-22 in the EPC final at Northampton Area High School on Saturday.
It’s the Trojans’ first EPC championship since 2015, when the program won its sixth consecutive league crown.
Parkland (14-5), which was ranked No. 8 in the most recent lehighvalleylive Top 10, overwhelmed the Golden Hawks (15-5) in the first two sets.
The Trojans took an 18-8 lead in the opening frame before sophomore outside hitter Brynn Dreisbach registered the final kill at 25-13. Bethlehem Catholic had a 7-5 advantage in the second set, but Parkland surged forward, taking a 15-9 lead on a block by senior middle hitter Lauren Ceh and eventually winning, 25-11, thanks to an ace by senior outside hitter Cat Farole.
“At practice, we've been focusing on talking a lot more and communicating. That has been the biggest asset to our team,” Ceh said. “In the beginning of the season, we started off a little rough. We weren't communicating as much. But now, we've really started focusing on that and focusing on the little things. That's brought us a long way.”
The Trojans excelled despite the absence of one of their top hitters: senior Amber Resendez, who missed the semifinals against Liberty as well.
“We just played hard and everyone played for each other, which we knew we had to do, especially not having one of our go-to hitters out there,” said Parkland assistant coach Taylor Krause, who was filling in for her father Mike. “I think everyone stepped up and the girls who had to fill roles, really became go-to hitters. That was important. That's what we've been looking for all year. So, I'm super proud of them, but we still have some more work to do.”
Bethlehem Catholic couldn’t find its footing in the early going.
“When we came out against Emmaus (in a semifinal sweep) on Thursday, the energy and the 'want to win' were there,” Golden Hawks coach Kelly Brown said. “Today, we lacked in our serving and our serve-receive. The last two matches, those were a huge benefits to us. So, coming out with weak serves and with our serve-receive being really rocky, that was an issue.”
The Golden Hawks got it together in the third frame, pulling out to a 14-7 advantage on a block by sophomore MacKenzy Ruggiero.
“We said to them, 'Go out with a fight,'” Brown said. “They showed that they could, and they fought all the way until the end.”
Parkland rallied to tie the third at 25-25, but Becahi sealed the set with a kill by Ruggiero and a violation by the Trojans.
“We just focused on what we needed to improve on and didn't let that get into our head,” Parkland junior setter Jackie Malitzki said. “We just stayed calm and relaxed.”
“We just had to go for it. We were one set away; they were two sets away,” Ceh said. “We kind of thought the pressure was on them, let's use that to our advantage and come out with a win.”
Sophomore Sydney Esquieres slapped the ball to the court to give Parkland a 16-9 lead in the fourth set. The Hawks fought back as Ruggiero scored to cut the deficit to 24-22, but a tip by Esquieres ended it at 25-22.
Malitzki had 37 assists for Parkland. Dreisbach had 14 kills and Ceh added 11. Junior libero Leah Brunnabend finished with 24 digs.
Becahi now enters the District 11 Class 3A bracket and will play Pottsville on Wednesday, with top-seeded and top-ranked Southern Lehigh, which has a bye, looming in the next round.
“I don't think anybody really expected us to be here. But, our girls wanted to get here and that's why we are here,” Brown said. “... I told them that this was exciting to get here and winning would have been a huge accomplishment, but districts is really the most important thing – to win that and move on to states. We just have to pick ourselves up as a team and play together.”
Parkland’s championship is evidence of tremendous improvement. The Trojans, who dropped a five-set result to Becahi in the regular season, struggled early – being swept by Liberty and losing to Northampton for the first time in program history.
“We've improved a lot mentally and physically. And we've come so much closer together as a team off the court, which translates to being closer together on the court. That really helps our chemistry,” Malitzki said.
“It's amazing. I'm so proud of everyone. From the beginning of the year, no one thought we were going to do anything at all,” Ceh said. “Not win leagues, districts or a state title. Coming in and winning this first step on our journey is absolutely amazing. We've worked so hard and grown so much. We came in here (seeded) sixth and we won the whole thing.”
Because the District 11 4A tournament is a subregional, the Trojans don’t get the benefit of preferential seeding with their EPC title. Parkland is the fifth seed and will play at fourth-seeded Freedom on Thursday.
“Every team in our district is really competitive. We have a couple challenging teams ahead of us,” Krause said. “... They were on a mission today. I hope they continue to be on a mission throughout the rest of this season.”
The Trojans might not have a No. 1 seed, but they have a united front headed into districts.
“They're just playing so hard and they're playing for each other because they're all best friends,” Krause said. “We've said we have the nicest locker room in the state. They're so nice to each other.”
And now it’s a locker room of champions, too.