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Garnet Valley girls show resilience in winning state volleyball title

Forget the future. Mark Clark's mantra was simple enough. He wanted his Garnet Valley girls' volleyball team to focus on the immediate task at hand rather than fret over the possible consequences.

Forget the future.

Mark Clark's mantra was simple enough. He wanted his Garnet Valley girls' volleyball team to focus on the immediate task at hand rather than fret over the possible consequences.

But he understood how the ins and outs of a contentious season, especially as certain possibilities became clear, could cause the players to look ahead.

"We took it one step at a time knowing we couldn't ever look at it like we're one point from winning or losing," the coach said. "Just take it one step at a time. And, at the end, we might look up and, 'Oh wait, we're on top.' "

Clark's Jaguars never did falter, and led by seniors Gabby Davis, Liz Herestofa, co-captain Sydney Portale, and Nicole Loan, they completed their often cardiac-inducing journey to become the first Delaware Valley high school to claim a state title by winning the PIAA Class 4A championship.

After a 10-8 2015 season, Clark knew he was entering the 2016 season with a talented team of girls. Of his 12 varsity roster spots, nine were filled by seniors, the most he had ever had on a single team, and he knew they were all fierce competitors.

"Plain and simple . . . you knew none of them weren't going to give you everything they had," Clark said. "You could just see it in them."

If anyone could see it, it was Clark. Entering his seventh season as the volleyball coach at Garnet Valley, he had coached the same group of girls since they started at the school.

Having realized the talent in front of him, Clark even found himself looking slightly ahead, stating that reaching the state tournament was a major goal of the team before the season started.

"Maybe even winning one," he said.

The Jaguars did much more than that as they marched to an undefeated season in Central League play and a high-seeded bid in the District 1 tournament. At that point, Clark said he had witnessed what this group of players was capable of doing.

"If given the chance, this team could play with anyone because it's about more than just skill," Clark said. "It's about heart and resilience, and these girls had a lot of that."

Those traits became both necessary and apparent as they were defeated at home by Council Rock North in the quarterfinals of the District 1 playoffs. So they were forced to claw back through district playbacks to clinch the final seed in the PIAA 4A state tournament.

Once in that tournament, the Jaguars again found themselves with their backs against the wall. They beat Red Lion in the first round and had to rally from a 2-0 hole to beat Baldwin in the quarterfinals and State College in the semifinals.

Then they faced unbeaten Parkland for the state title.

It seemed fitting that Garnet Valley, ever forced to battle back, found itself in a 2-1 hole to open the final round. But, holding true to his own coaching, Clark's confidence never left him.

"I didn't have to tell them anything at that point," he said. "I knew they knew what they had to do. There was no go-to girl. They were all go-to girls."

And, as they had done throughout the postseason, the Jaguars came storming back and dominated the final two sets to cap their 3-2 upset of the two-time defending champions and claim the state title.

Afterward, four girls from the 19-2 championship team were be named to all-district teams. Davis, Herestofa and Portale were named to all-District 1 first team, and Loan was named to the second team.

Davis, Herestofa, and Portale will all continue their volleyball careers at Susquehanna University next year.

Seniors Cassidy Gallagher, Julianne Hurley, Meagan Scott and junior Erin Patterson also played well for the Jaguars in the tournament. Afterward, the girls told Clark they played to win for each other.

"That's what made this team special," he said. "They played selfless."