At the start of their final season, the members of York Catholic’s girls’ volleyball team were given a phrase from head coach Phillip Autrey: “Choose your hard.”
It was a motivator for the Irish, and a challenge for them to consider how they handle difficult situations, including their heartbreak after last season’s abrupt ending with a loss in the District 3 finals.
Bolstered by senior leadership and a drive to avenge the district title loss, the Irish converted those frustrations into championship bids this season and, after toppling back-to-back champion Trinity for the district title on November 3, set their sights on state gold.
The Irish upset opponents Parkland Center City, Tyrone and Notre Dame Green Pond in the first three rounds of the state brackets, earning themselves a place where no team in program history had been before: competing for a PIAA state title.
The girls in green and gold faced District 7 champion Freeport, from Sarver, Pa., in the 2A finals at Cumberland Valley on November 19. Despite getting off to a hot start in the first set (where they led by six at one point) and keeping themselves within striking distance of their Yellowjacket opponents at points in the second and third, York Catholic fell short of their quest for gold, falling 25-21, 25-15 and 25-18.
Senior Mary McNamara reflected on Coach Autrey’s “Choose your hard” motto after the game, with a silver medal around her neck.
“He told us there’s always going to be something hard for us to face in life, and that we have to choose which way we’re going to handle it,” McNamara said, her eyes red from tears – some from disappointment, others from the bittersweet culmination for a team that began playing together in middle school.
From the looks of it, the Fighting Irish followed their coach’s mandate, handling the sting of a state-final loss with grace and gratitude, even after fighting so hard to get there.
“At the start of the year, Coach told us that our goal was to win districts, and that if we made it further than that, it would be a blessing,” McNamara said. “Being here and playing in front of the PIAA banner felt like we were fulfilling our purpose.”
She recalled how Autrey’s motivation for this season began last year after the district title loss, when he told them, “That’s going to be you next year, with the gold.”
“He was right; we came back this year and won the district title,” McNamara said. “We beat everyone who always beats us. This was the team to do it, because we’ve been together since sixth grade and were Coach’s first elementary school team. So for it to come full circle to states is special for us, even though we fell short.”
Against No. 1 ranked Freeport, the Irish took off to an early lead in the first set, forcing Freeport to call a timeout to quell York Catholic’s 18-12 lead. The timeout gave the Yellowjackets the regroup they needed, leading to an 8-1 run that swung the tide their way.
York Catholic sparked some momentum of their own halfway through the second and third sets – including rallies back from 12-4 and 7-3 deficits – but some hitting errors and a few serve miscues by the Irish gave Freeport the launch they needed to seal the match.
York Catholic ends its season at 22-2.
“We’ve played teams like Freeport with their height and being scrappy; I think the loss was just more on us,” McNamara said.
“When we went ahead, they got down mentally and made errors; and that’s exactly what we did when we got behind. We had to get out of our heads when we were down. We tried to pick each other up, but once you’re down after two sets, it’s hard. We started making errors and they got the best of us. But both teams served great and hit great; it was a match up against two great teams,” she said.
(Semifinal photos by Chris Heisey; finals photos by Jen Reed; trophy photo courtesy of Bob Chadderdon, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness