DOWNINGTOWN — Minutes after her Garnet Valley team displayed its patented never-say-die attitude in a comeback from down 10 points that came up just a bit short in a season-ending 3-0 loss to Bishop Shanahan in the District One Class AAA quarterfinals, Maria Nicolaides was already looking forward to 2014.
The loss to the Eagles, who clinched a berth in the state tournament and will advance to Thursday's semifinal against No. 2 Downingtown East, a 3-2 winner over No. 7 Avon Grove, will sting for a little while. Shanahan downed the Jaguars by scores of 25-17, 25-23 and 25-23. On the other hand, Nicolaides couldn't help but envision her team in Shanahan's shoes at this point next year.
"Next year's going to be awesome,' said Nicolaides, who bashed seven kills for the Jaguars. "But we can make it further. I feel like we can make it past this game next year. It's two years that we've been stuck in this game. I know next year, we've got it.'
The fact that No. 6 Garnet Valley only loses three seniors, only one of whom saw extended minutes this year in Nicole Clayton, has a lot to do with the excitement surrounding Mark Clark's team next season. That type of continuity and experience wasn't lost on libero Jenna Hostetler, who — yes, again — turned in a phenomenal defensive effort.
"I am beyond excited,' said Hostetler, who had five aces and served up a 9-0 run that nearly helped the Jaguars come back in the third game. "Coming off this game, it doesn't even matter that we lost because we played our hearts out. ... Garnet Valley doesn't stop. We don't stop until we say it's done. We work hard.'
The Eagles rolled in the opener before the Jaguars staked themselves to a 12-4 lead in the second game, but in the blink of an eye, Shanahan showed the explosiveness and savvy that has helped it become one of the district's elites. The Eagles erased most of the deficit with a 7-0 run, then followed it up with an 8-3 run to take the lead. From there, it was a heck of an uphill battle for Garnet Valley, which also got 10 kills from Brianna Plush and seven from Julianna Boettger.
"We just started passing better,' Shanahan setter Haley Kleespies said. "We just played our game.'
The No. 3 Eagles came oh-so-close to a Ches-Mont League championship before falling to Downingtown East, 3-2, to give the Cougars the title, so the rematch will have a little bit of additional buildup between the neighborhood rivals. But that match had a lasting effect for Shanahan. It put the Eagles' weaknesses on display for all — including them — to see and helped them re-focus before embarking on the quest to make it back to the state tournament.
"It wasn't really tough (to bounce back),' Kleespies added. "It showed that we needed to step it up and it actually helped us with practicing better and really drove to practice better.'
That practice perfection was on full display against the Jaguars and the Eagles will be a problem for anyone they run into in the state tournament. That being said, it's not hard to draw some parallels between Shanahan and next year's Garnet Valley's outfit. The loss will bother the Jaguars for a while, but it would be surprising to see them not ascend to the district's highest tier of teams next season.
"It's pretty disappointing,' defensive specialist Christina Duko said, "but we played a good game and we kept fighting, so I'm pretty proud of our team. (But) I feel like next year, we're going to be a lot better than this year. We have a lot of potential coming in next year.'
That team will probably give Clark his best shot at making the state tournament. The veteran boss has had very good teams every year, but they've never been able to break through to make the state tournament. With Hostetler at the helm and a bevy of talented players like Nicolaides, fellow middle Kiley Price, Plush, Duko, setter Elise Cummings and Kelly Sarabaugh, there's no telling how far the Jaguars can go. They'll probably be lacking a little bit in size, a seemingly common theme for the Jaguars, but their defense will be second to none and the key to locking up that berth.
"We're there, we're there,' Clark said. "We lost some hitters last year (like two-time All-Delco Ellie Ezekiel) and we still made it back to this spot. It's a good squad. We've got a good bunch of girls.'
So how good can this team be next year?
"The potential,' Clark added, "is unlimited.'