By John Knebels
Sports Columnist

In truth, there was very little chance that Merion Mercy Academy’s volleyball team wasn’t going to win a state championship this year.

That’s not a knock on the competition. The Golden Bears were that good.

But when the final point was recorded in Saturday night’s PIAA Class AA state title victory over West Allegheny High School at Central York High School, Merion Mercy wasn’t only celebrating a single championship, of which the final score was 25-12, 25-17, 25-10. Nor was Merion Mercy only celebrating an unblemished 40-0 season. {{more}}

“It’s pretty amazing when you think about it,” said senior Shelbey Manthorpe, who immediately comprehended the awe of what had just transpired. “What we accomplished is incredible.”

Manthorpe was referring to Merion’s fourth straight crown, or, to hear the Merion players say it, a “four-peat.”

Beginning her freshman year, she and her twin sister Stacey rendered the Golden Bears’ foes helpless along the net. Each fall, both players continued to excel, simultaneously making their teammates better in the process.

Case in point – even though the Manthorpe twins and fellow seniors Katie Kavanaugh, Ashani Rubin and player-manager Sarah Poplawski will be graduating, Merion will still be considered a favorite to win yet another championship next year.

In the meantime, the Golden Bears will bask in the glory of a rare accomplishment in any sport.

“It’s been a treat,” said Poplawski, who for the past three years has recorded the statistics for her teammates while occasionally receiving some playing time. “I sit there and watch what the girls can do and just marvel. It’s fun to watch.”

Poplawski’s career highlight occurred during the regular season. On senior night, Merion was one point away from clinching the match against Catholic Academies League opponent Mount St. Joseph’s Academy, and coach Rich Johnson summoned Poplawski from the bench to serve.

Before tossing her pencil and clipboard aside and jumping to her feet, Poplawski thought that maybe she was mistaken.

“I was like, ‘Oh, me? Really?'” she said.

With her teammates cheering on one of their favorite all-around people, Poplawski’s serve was perfect and helped set up the final point of the match.

It’s just one example of why the Golden Bears, or Volleybears as the Merion community calls them, have prided themselves as being more like a family of sisters than a volleyball team of athletes.

“We have the best of both worlds,” said junior setter Colleen Downey. “We have a couple of phenomenal stars, some great players, and people who know their roles and do well with them. So on the court, we do great things. Off the court is even better because we care about each other and are constantly rooting for each other.”

Downey said the Seton Hall University-bound Manthorpe twins have definitely made her and her teammates better players. Perhaps more importantly, the Golden Bears have learned that players who are branded as stars don’t necessarily possess an inflated sense of ego.

“They are obviously the best players on the court, and they have national experience that most players don’t have,” Downey said. “But as good as they are up front, they also are good at passing and setting up other players.

“They’re also great leaders. They are always pulling for us and you don’t feel like there is a separation between them and anyone else. We’re all a part of one big happy family.”

Downey laughed.

“But man,” she said, “they are really amazing to watch.”

In the state tournament, all of the Golden Bears were fun to watch. Shelbey Manthorpe was named tournament Most Valuable Player and freshman Emma Aldaya the tourney’s best defensive player. Stacey Manthorpe and junior Kalen Backe were both selected on the all-tournament team.

Next year, the Golden Bears will return a slew of underclassmen that include varsity contributors Backe, Downey, Emily Toal, Erin Murphy, Courtney Whelan, Bridget Merenda and Katie Welliver (all juniors), along with sophomore Alexis Needles and aforementioned freshman Aldaya.

“I know it will be tough, but I really think we have what it takes to keep this going,” said Downey. “We’ve had a big advantage playing with so many great players for a long time now. As much as we will miss our seniors, I know the rest of us are going to do everything possible to do this again.”

Can anyone say “five-peat”? Time will tell.

John Knebels can be reached at