Golden Bears still optimistic after ending two-year unbeaten streak

John Knebels
Special to The CS&T

When a team defends a state championship, it has a proverbial target on its back. When it must defend consecutive state titles, the invisible image becomes twice as cumbersome.

So whether they like it or not, the members of Merion Mercy Academy’s volleyball team will continue to supply their opponents with a powerful incentive. It is a burden that will last no less than the entire season, regardless of what Merion’s record is at any point.

In a non-league match Friday night at Archmere Academy in Claymont, Del., the Golden Bears provided motivational fodder for an Auks team that had lost in Delaware’s state championship last fall. Despite being from a different state, Archmere recognized that a victory over a Pennsylvania powerhouse that had not lost a match in more than two years would be a tremendous accomplishment.

And in a riveting competition that betrayed an early-season meeting between two schools about 25 miles apart, Archmere did what no other team has been able to do since 2006. The Auks defeated the Golden Bears in five sets, and Merion Mercy returned to its waiting bus carrying unfamiliar emotions.

“It’s disappointing any time you lose, but we did some good things and there is a lot of room for improvement,” said senior Katrina Pisch, a graduate of St. Catherine of Siena School in Horsham. “We lost a lot of players and we have a lot of younger girls who are still getting their feet wet in the varsity pool. We’re getting better.”

After spending the last two seasons lost in the shadow of more-celebrated teammates, Pisch finds herself as the only senior starter and one of only three on the roster, the others being Lauren Stranick and Liz Nolan.

While she can rely on support from twin junior stalwarts Shelby and Stacy Manthorpe, Pisch’s responsibilities this year includes mentoring younger players such as sophomore outside hitter Kalen Backe.

A spirited product of King of Prussia’s Mother of spanine Providence School, Backe said that Pisch has already demonstrated palpable leadership.

Sandwiched between Catholic Academies League victories over Mount St. Joseph’s Sept. 10 and Gwynedd-Mercy Academy Sept. 15 was a tournament at Penncrest High School Sept. 12. After being ousted by the hosts in the semifinals, the Golden Bears were understandably disappointed. It was the kind of tourney that in the past Merion would have won rather easily.

Noticing that her teammates appeared despondent, Pisch immediately communicated messages of encouragement. According to Backe, Pisch’s words helped immensely.

“She does a really good job of bringing the team together,” said Backe. “She knows that a lot of us feel that it is hard to live up to last year’s seniors who brought us two straight state championships. But she lets us knows that we are doing the best we can right now and that it’s tough when you’re everyone’s target.”

Pisch said she has noticed that the Golden Bears have already bonded well together.

“We’re friends first, volleyball players second,” said Pisch.

But Merion’s foes will only be concerned with the volleyball part of the equation. The Golden Bears will serve as a barometer for everyone on their schedule.

According to Pisch, been there, done that.

“Deep down, we’re used to it,” she said. “It’s been that way for two years and it won’t change. I take it as more of a compliment than anything else. And even though we graduated (seven) starters, our goal is to get back and win a state championship. We want to peak during districts and go from there.”

If the Golden Bears somehow experience a three-peat, regular-season losses really won’t matter very much at all.

John Knebels can be reached at