SOUDERTON — "We haven't been behind all year and then you get behind and there's no template to use, you can't say, ' you remember when?' No, you can't,' lamented coach Tony Funsten after his Upper Merion Vikings fell in the quarterfinal round of states to Southern Lehigh, 3-1.
Down two sets to one, the Upper Merion Vikings found themselves behind an opponent for the first time this season. The first game had come easily — the Vikings were confident — but then the Spartans came out firing in the second and third match and all of a sudden the Vikings were forced to dig out of a hole, a position in which they had no reference.
"The first game I wasn't overconfident by any stretch, but I knew we could win,' Funsten said. "They helped us a little bit and we ran with it. It was a competitive match, but in the second set they cut down their errors and I think we increased our errors.'
Funsten had said prior to Saturday's match that the Spartans were a clean team who made very few mistakes, and on gameday they proved it. Between the power-hitting outside in Mel Amory and the all-state prowess of libero (defensive specialist) Nic Yates, the Spartans were impenetrable on defense and nearly unstoppable on offense. Yates' 35 digs, more than a third of her team's total of 84, was dynamic in shutting down the Vikings' offensive scheme.
"(The Vikings) hit well, but when you have Nicki Yates in the back, she's going to dig and frustrate the other team,' said Spartans coach Don West Jr. "She demoralizes people with her defense.'
"How good was their libero?' Funsten asked rhetorically. "She was fabulous.'
Meanwhile, Amory's 25 kills played a huge part in the Spartan's blowout third and fourth sets. The Vikings had only 42 digs total. Once the Spartans got rolling, the Vikings weren't able to put the run together that they needed.
"They weren't sure if they could come back because they've never done it before. I tried to convince them, that's my job as a coach,' Funsten said.
There was a point in the fourth set where the Vikings had surged back into the game, still down 13-16, and the Vikings seemed sure to put away a kill to come within two. But after a completely improbable up, the Spartans rallied and responded with a back-row attack for the point and started on a run of their own. The Vikings never recovered.
"They picked up everything. They were just a better team,' said outside hitter Melanie Ingram who had 15 kills and 15 digs. "They wanted it more than we did.'
After losing last year in the state championship, the Vikings were certain to make another run at the title. All-time, Upper Merion has yet to win a state championship, but the Vikings' volleyball team have been the favorite to do so. On top of Ingram's 1,000th kill this season, Funsten's 600th win, a District One championship and yet another league title, the Vikings' season will go down as one of the finest in the program's 20-year history.
"(The first thing I thought of) was leaving this team behind, because I'm the only senior,' said a tearful Ingram after the final point was tallied.
But with many returning players, albeit sans one of the best players to ever play for the Vikings volleyball squad, the Vikings' core will return as a powerhouse in the district and continue to make waves for seasons to come.