One of Delaware's most competitive scholastic sports launches a new season Friday when St Mark’s volleyball team travels to St. Georges Tech. The Spartans and the other Catholic schools are looking to continue their recent success.
Padua Academy, coming off back-to-back state championships, including an undefeated 19-0 season in 2013, knows it will be a target every time it takes the court. Four seniors – Stephanie Annone, Hailey Baker, Vanessa Crumety and Sarah Wiley – along with junior Lauren Mellor and a host of new talent must fill the void left by significant graduated talent if the Pandas wish to add another banner to its gymnasium wall this year. Coach Lauren DiSabatino and her squad know the Pandas will have a target on their backs every time they step on the court.
“But that's the way we like it,” she said.
Padua will run the same formations it has in DiSabatino's first two seasons, but some of the plays will be different “because they were centered around girls who have graduated. Our No. 1 goal when we started after tryouts was to kind of redefine ourselves and what we want out of Padua volleyball this year.”
The tests start right away for Padua with a season-opening visit to Archmere on Sept. 9, followed by a trip to Virginia to play Pope Paul VI, which took the Pandas to five sets last season in Wilmington. They play one of the state's toughest schedules, including two matches each against Ursuline and St. Mark's.
“No games are ever easy,” DiSabatino said. “Sometimes it comes down to points, sometimes it comes down to wins and losses. They're all hard.”
Archmere, like Padua, is trying to replace key seniors from last year, and the Auks had two players – current seniors Justine Pantaleo and Tori Falasco – suffer injuries in the preseason. When those two are healthy, they join a roster heavy with seniors and juniors ready to advance past the second round, which is when the Auks' season ended last year. They finished 13-4.
Coach Mary Pat Kwoka is working with some serious talent. In addition to Pantaleo and Falasco, she advises spectators to watch for senior Regan Bice, junior Sammie Mengers and Kaylie Leclerc, a sophomore who was a key contributor last year.
“She played a lot last year and we're hoping she's going to run a solid offense,” Kwoka said.
“I think we're going to be a scrappy team. We're not as tall as we'd like to be. I think our heart and our hustle are going to help us be competitive in most matches,” the coach continued.
The Auks face just about all of the state's top contenders, including that opener against Padua.
“If you're going to start a season, start it right,” said Kwoka, who coached DiSabatino at St. Elizabeth. “We've got our work cut out for us. These kids are working as hard as they possibly can. Hopefully, we're going to continue to improve.”
Over at St. Elizabeth, a new coach is hoping to restore the Vikings to their past glory, which included two trips to the state final under Kwoka. The preseason has been a learning experience for both coach James Phillips and his players.
“We're just getting used to each other. Mostly we're having fun and learning a lot together,” said Phillips, a 2000 graduate of St. Elizabeth who previously coached at A.I. duPont.
The Vikings went 6-9 last season, opening the season with a win over Ursuline and taking three of their first five matches. They ended the year with two straight wins and hope to continue in that direction. Phillips has a roster full of juniors and seniors, along with one freshman. He said to look out for seniors Anna Desmond and Kylie DeGhetto, as well as juniors Karli Cathell and Elisa Hackendorn.
“They're doing a lot of stuff for us. They're going to be on the court as much as possible, the kind of kids you don't want to see come off,” he said.
Phillips wants to take the Vikings to the level of their Catholic school colleagues, but that will come in time.
“Our goal is just to reach our ceiling one day at a time,” Phillips said. “I was fortunate to be part of St. E's volleyball when we were the team to beat. We went through an evolution the same that we're trying to go through right now.”
In addition to Padua, St. Mark's and Ursuline twice each, the Vikings will meet Archmere, Delaware Military Academy and Caravel, along with Caesar Rodney, one of the best teams downstate.
St. Mark's is looking to recapture the state championship trophy it won in both 2010 and 2011, but the Spartans have a large void to fill with the graduations of state player of the year Abbie Mirabella, Peyton Reno and Claudia Seemans. Last year, St. Mark's went 15-4, losing an epic five-set semifinal-round match to Padua before defeating Concord in the third-place match.
In addition to Padua, St. Elizabeth and Ursuline twice each, the Spartans will battle Wilmington Friends, Charter, Delaware Military Academy and Archmere. They play 10 of their 15 regular-season matches on the road.
Returning players who saw significant playing time last year include seniors Lauren Sorantino and Kennedy Staudt, along with junior Addison Reich. There are three freshmen on the roster.
At Ursuline, the Raiders – perennial contenders for the state championship – are looking to rebound from a 4-11 campaign in 2013 and a rare omission from the playoffs. Five seniors graduated from that team.
The Raiders take on three of the better public school teams this season in Charter, Concord and A.I. duPont, as well as their Catholic foes and a few out-of-state opponents.
St. Thomas More
In Kent County, St. Thomas More turned in an 8-7 season last year, and while the Ravens missed the playoffs, they won five consecutive matches before dropping the finale vs. DMA. This year, St. Thomas More's schedule looks much the same as last year, and perhaps the Ravens can earn a playoff berth.