Weekly Feature



2018-11-08 / Sports

Lady Lancers cruise to eighth-straight volleyball title

Mulhern caps comeback with clinching kill
by TAYLOR NIGRELLI Reporter

The St. Mary’s girls volleyball team won countless Monsignor Martin and New York State titles over the past two-plus decades. But this one was a little more special, considering the circumstances.

When Hannah Mulhern got the championship-clinching kill in the third game, dispatching Sacred Heart in a sweep at Cardinal O’Hara Thursday, she wasn’t just closing out another championship for her team. She was completing what has been an incredible and unlikely comeback.

The senior spend much of the spring in doctor’s offices and hospitals while dealing with a tumor that had wrapped itself around her brainstem. The rare malady could have been life-threatening, but instead Mulhern quickly resolved to get back on the court, missing no time and still playing well.

“It’s amazing,” St. Mary’s coach Don Pieczynski said. “She’s still not 100 percent. She still has to take a lot of medication and she’s still in a lot of pain. You can only imagine her at 100 percent. We didn’t expect to have her at all this year. For her to go through our grueling practices and our grueling schedule, this is probably our 38th match this year. The kid just don’t quit. She struggles at times; no question about it. But she just keeps going at it. It’s a great example for the rest of the team.”

“It’s amazing. I’ve thought about this moment since I was in surgery,” Mulhern said. “It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of and I’m so proud of my team.”

Watching Mulhern come back was inspirational for her teammates, who wanted to make sure she finished out her high school career with another championship.

“Hannah means the absolute world to me,” Jasmine Brundage said. “You can’t imagine how much I’ve done and how much I wanted her to have this moment. I can’t wait to do the same thing at states.”

Mulhern and the Lady Lancers rolled through the first two sets Thursday, winning 25-10 and 25-12, after an undefeated regular season in league play. Sacred Heart put up a bit more of a fight in the third set. The Sharks tied things up at seven at one point and trailed just 15-12 later in the match. But the Lady Lancers took a seven point lead soon after and never looked back. St. Mary’s took the final set, 25-17.

“We followed the game plan,” Pieczynski said. “We wanted to serve tough. We switched up our defenses numerous times to keep them unbalanced. They followed the game plan and played with a purpose.”

“We could actually pass the ball in the third set,” Sacred Heart coach J.T. Ripper said. “In the first two, they were just serving and we couldn’t put the ball inside the 10-foot line to save our lives. That’s all this game comes down to, is serving and passing. Everything else is just playing the game. But your first contact of the ball decides how things are going to go. If you can’t get a good pass, you can’t do anything. If you serve them tough, like we did for a little while, then they have a tough time passing and they have to run something else.”

The St. Mary’s defense was a major key to the victory, as the team got dig after dig on what seemed to be sure points for Sacred Heart. Brundage, a libero, was all over the ground saving points for her team all match.

“I think defense is kind of the base for the game,” Brundage said. “Defense plays an entire role in it. Wearing this (libero) jersey is special to me, especially for St. Mary’s.”

“Defense was the key tod ay,” Brundage said. “That and our serve-receive game were the keys today. We worked on it, we played a couple different defenses today against their strong hitters and they followed the game plan to a T. Our serving was tremendous.”

That impressive St. Mary’s defense frustrated Sacred Heart’s attack, which eventually led to breakdowns on offense.

“It’s frustrating,” Ripper said. “It’s very frustrating. I’ve told these kids a couple times during the season. A good-to-great defense will frustrate an offense no matter how high-powered you are or how many stars you have. If you dig up every ball, the other team is just going to get frustrated and you’ll just be done at that point in time. Then you can just put it wherever you want to. In the first set, we were one and done too many times. We would serve and they would get the ball back.”

The Lancers have now won eight consecutive league titles and have been the team to beat in Monsignor Martin for more than a decade now. It takes a certain mental toughness to be able to overcome that history.

“It’s been eight years since we’ve won a playoff championship, and it’s been longer since we’ve actually won a league championship,” Ripper said. “There is a mental aspect to it, but you have to have the mental toughness to roll through it. If you don’t, c’est la vie.”

Meanwhile, the Lady Lancers will next play in the CHSAA State Championship Tournament Saturday at St. Mary’s High School, looking to win their 17th state title. Regardless of how this weekend turns out, the team has created its own legacy for a program that has so many stories of success.

“We know each year is a new year, and every year you have to prove again that we’re one of the best, so it starts in practice,” Mulhern said. “We start at the very beginning of the season working hard.”

“We talk about it all the time; we are a family,” Pieczynski said. “But each team has to create their own legacy. It’s been carried on for decades now and the kids believe in it and they buy into it. That’s the key to our success.”

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