NEWARK – When Jackie Barnett’s cross-court shot found the far corner against Saint Mark’s on Nov. 11 at the Bob Carpenter Center, it did more than bring the Pandas the DIAA volleyball state championship. It ended a six-year run of near-misses for a program that is consistently at the top of the heap in the state.
The fourth-seeded Pandas scored a mild upset of No. 2 Saint Mark’s, 3-1, in front of hundreds of full-throated young ladies from Padua and a similar-sized contingent from Saint Mark’s, not to mention a few thousand other spectators. Set scores were 25-16, 21-25, 25-18 and 25-23.
“It was just the best feeling in the world,” Barnett said. “This is just the best feeling in the world with my team.”
For Padua, it was their first title since 2013. They have reached at least the semifinal round of the tournament every year but two since 2006. Coach Lauren DiSabatino said she had a good feeling about the night since arriving at school Monday morning.
“I just like to be with the girls, and when I got to school today and I saw their faces, and we talked, I just knew that tonight, no matter what was happening with the thing that we talked about, that we were going to play like we were winning even if we were losing,” DiSabatino said. “That was our No. 1 goal. Winning was not it. We just wanted to have fun with each other in our last game of the season. And they did that the whole time.”
The fun began in the first set, although it started with Saint Mark’s on top, 5-3. Three of those points coming on kills from senior all-stater Savannah Seemans. The Pandas fought back to tie the score, 7-7, before going on a set-changing run. Mackenzie Sobczyk got the run started with one of her many smashes, and Meghan Peters followed with a soft spike before Sobczyk went down the right side. Kyla Dow finally ended the run with a swing to the far corner, but the Padua lead was 14-8.
The Spartans would get no closer for the remainder of the set, but that was not the worst of the news for them. With the score 22-14, Seemans landed awkwardly after going up for a kill, and she fell to the hardwood with an apparent injury to her left knee. Her night – her high school career – was over. The set ended with a Grace Palaypay spike down the middle of the floor.
With Seemans in the locker room, the Spartans played inspired volleyball in the second set. The Pandas took a 9-6 lead when Madison Wilhelm stuffed an overpass, but Saint Mark’s began the comeback on the next point. A five-point run, punctuated by a Katie Sonchen ace, gave the Spartans an 11-6 lead, eliciting hardy cheers from the black-clad Spartans student body.
But the Pandas fought back, finally forging a tie at 18, prompting a timeout by the Spartans. The set was knotted again at 20 before the Spartans scored five of the final six points to level the match at a set each. Abby Thibodeau sent it to set point with a blast off the Padua wall, and a communication breakdown by the Pandas following a stuff from Serena Pluta ended it.
Jess Molen got the Pandas started in the third with one of her 13 kills. It was tied, 4-4, before Molen ignited a seven-point run by smacking a point off the fingertips of the Spartans’ block. Sobczyk and Barnett also contributed spikes during that streak.
The margin remained between five and nine points for the remainder of the set. One of the highlights was a bomb from Molen after a lunging one-arm save by the libero, Sarah Pritchard, who was a rock on defense all evening. Sobczyk ended the third with two very different kills. The first, to send it to set point, was a straight-down blast, while the next one was tipped over the block.
The Spartans opened up the fourth in good shape, scoring the first four points as their supporters eyed a fifth and deciding set. Brooke Dow got it started with a third-chance kill, and Julia Yurkovich continued her solid play with a few spikes.
Kyla Dow was blocked out of bounds, and Brooke Dow smashed one, to put Saint Mark’s ahead, 12-8, before the Pandas began the comeback. Peters started it with a spike, and Ireland Giaquinto delivered an ace. When Molen knocked down a Spartans swing a few points later, it was tied at 14. Two consecutive kills from Molen put Padua on top to stay at 16-15.
That doesn’t mean the Spartans were done. Three times they closed to within a point, including on a saved match point thanks to Pluta, who stuffed a Pandas overpass. But then Barnett saw the open corner, and the wait was over for the Pandas and their fans.
Sobczyk said everyone had a role in the victory. She mentioned Madison Wilhelm, who stepped in for Michelle Kozicki, the standout middle blocker who missed the final part of the season with an injury.
“Everyone did such a great job tonight. It was such a team effort. Madison did a fantastic job coming in at the end of the season. It’s not easy at all, for for her to do that and be so successful, we couldn’t be more proud of her,” she said.
Sobczyk completed an outstanding tournament with 19 kills and four blocks. Pritchard had 43 digs, many of the acrobatic variety. Molen added 20 digs to go along with her kills, and Colleen McClintock had 13 digs. The Pandas finished the season 16-3.
DiSabatino said the Pandas knew they would be considered the underdogs coming in, but she noted that the teams were fairly even in the regular season.
“We came into this head-to-head, both with a match, so anything can happen in the tournament. We did everything we needed to do tonight, and it all came together,” she said.
For the Spartans, Brooke Dow led the way with 12 kills and 15 digs, while Yurkovich had 11 kills. Sam Gerhart had 22 digs, while Mya Lewis and Kyla Dow contributed 10 apiece. Seemans was active before her injury, posting seven kills in less than one set. Saint Mark’s was 17-2.
All photos by Don Blake except where noted.