NEWARK — Brooke Dow took a big swing at the volleyball as the clock neared 9 p.m. on Nov. 15. The ball stayed inside the antenna, hugged the sideline and fell to the floor. With that, Saint Mark’s completed a sweep of the Pandas and repeated as the DIAA state champions. The set scores were 25-23, 25-18, and 25-18.
Back at the Bob Carpenter Center after a one-year COVID-forced absence, the final was a chance for the Spartans to demonstrate their prominence in Delaware high school volleyball once again on the state’s biggest stage. With the win, they finished their second consecutive perfect season, going 18-0. The Spartans lost just two sets all season — their first one of the season at Wilmington Friends, and one in the last match of the regular season at Ursuline.
The Spartans received a big night from their entire rotation, from all-state hitter Julia Yurkovich to setter Katie Sonchen to libero Taylor Holly. With their balance, no Spartan was pressured to put up spectacular numbers, although they all had pretty solid nights. Coach Nancy Griskowitz called her 2021 team “phenomenal.”
“We don’t have a weak rotation at all. We just wear teams out, I think, because we’re pretty solid through and through,” she said.
It was the second straight state title for Saint Mark’s and their 12th overall, tying them with Ursuline for most in the state. Griskowitz has been at the helm for nine of them. Only Sue Heiss, who coached Ursuline to 11 championships before retiring after this season, has more among coaches. This was the third straight final between the Spartans and Padua.
Despite the strength of Saint Mark’s this season, Griskowitz knew Padua would not hand them the trophy. Nowhere was that shown more than in the first set.
After Sarah Hessler’s block brought the Spartans into a 3-3 tie, the Pandas scored the next three on a service error and two attack errors by Saint Mark’s. But the comeback began with consecutive kills by Mya Lewis, who had a superb final match in her high school career. The score was tied at 8 when Lewis smacked one off the Pandas wall to put her team on top to stay.
After the Pandas’ Morgan Bond made it 11-9 with one of her monster kills, Dow scored on a cross, then delivered an ace, and Yurkovich followed with a blast to extend the lead to five.
The lead got to 21-14 when Padua called a timeout. The Pandas got the deficit down to three when a Lewis cross made it 23-19. Bond answered with a smash, and Olivia Staats scored on a block, prompting a Saint Mark’s timeout. Dimiris crushed one out of the break to send it to set point, but the Pandas used another Staats block, then a Meghan Peters kill to cut the lead to a single point. But on the next point, a Saint Mark’s attack was dug out of bounds, and the Spartans survived.
The Pandas, cheered on by their yellow-clad student section in one end zone of the Bob, led by a 6-5 score in the second before the Spartans turned it around. Lewis tied the set on a kill, and Chiara Grott followed with an ace. Grott was behind the service line for the next six points; the 8-0 run — capped by a Lewis kill down the right sideline — gave Saint Mark’s a 13-6 lead.
Peters spearheaded the Padua comeback attempt. She had a few blasts over the next several points, and her ace brought Padua to within three at 16-13.
The Spartans responded by scoring five of the next six, taking a 21-14 lead as they had done in the first. This time, the Pandas could get no closer than five, and Dimiris ended the set with a kill.
She opened the third set in similar fashion, and after Peters was blocked out of bounds to level the score, the Spartans took a lead on another Dimiris kill, and they would not trail or be tied again. Sonchen contributed an ace and a surprise tap along the way, but the Pandas remained close for a bit. In fact, a kill by Padua’s Mary Mancini midway through made it an 11-10 Saint Mark’s lead.
Hessler, however, scored the next point on a tap, the first of four straight for the Spartans. Later on, a cross by Ava Borcky got the third set to that magic score, 21-14, and Holly followed with an ace. Peters got one back, but a Yurkovich attack was blocked out of bounds for the Spartans’ 23rd point. The Pandas scored on consecutive errors by the Spartans before Yurkovich went straight down to get things to match point. Peyton Sullivan saved one match point before Down painted the sideline with her championship-clinching point.
Griskowitz was encouraged by the way her team reacted to playing in the Bob Carpenter Center, and she noted that Borcky and Grott brought a spark to the team.
“They did fantastic,” she said. “They’ve been in the rotation all year, and tonight, they did great. I think the whole team played great.”
Borcky was happy to get as many chances on Monday as she did. “It was the normal rotation, but I didn’t think I’d get as many touches as I did.”
Borcky is in her first year at Saint Mark’s after transferring from a Pennsylvania high school, and she said the experience at the Bob “was an amazing feeling.”
Dimiris played in her second consecutive championship after arriving at Saint Mark’s last year as a junior. She said she wanted to play at the Bob Carpenter Center after having the final last year at Saint Mark’s in front of two fans per player. She was thrilled to see a few hundred Saint Mark’s students in the end zone behind the team, all wearing black.
“The energy they bring is amazing. It makes me get excited every time I play,” she said. “Especially with COVID last year, we were at Saint Mark’s. It was so different. It had such a different feeling.”
Lewis said the team was “fired up” and ready to go. She was happy to be back at the Carpenter Center, where she played on the Spartans’ team that lost to Padua in the 2019 state championship finals.
“It was a much different atmosphere, but I most definitely prefer it here. It was more fun,” she said.
Griskowitz wanted to thank the students for supporting the team all season, not just in the finals. She also was thrilled for her players, who have endured a lot through the pandemic and into this season.
“I’m so proud of this team and so happy for them,” she said. “They were undefeated last year, they’re undefeated this year. It’s never an easy thing to go undefeated, so I am so proud of them. It just feels awesome.”
Dimiris and Lewis each had 10 kills to lead the Spartans. Hessler had three of her team’s nine blocks. Saint Mark’s has not lost since the 2019 state championship match, a stretch of 33 games.
Peters led the Pandas with 14 kills. Padua finished the season at 14-5.
All photos by Don Blake except where noted.