Pursell, Parkland show winning DNA during 9th straight D-11 girls volleyball triumph

There’s a DNA in the fabric of championship teams that allows them to navigate difficult situations and emerge victorious.

That winning gene also can be found within the individual members of those teams.

Parkland High School’s journey Thursday night to its ninth straight District 11 girls volleyball championship was far from smooth, and sometimes it could’ve gone off the tracks.

In many ways, it mirrored the night standout senior middle hitter Elena Pursell experienced in the top-seeded Trojans’ 25-18, 27-25, 26-24 conquest of second-seeded Liberty in the Class 4A final at Catasauqua High School.

Everything was going according to plan for Parkland (22-0), which dealt Liberty (22-2) its only previous loss in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference final in straight sets. The Trojans pulled away from the Hurricanes in the first set, 25-18, with a 10-2 run to close the segment. The 6-foot-1 Pursell contributed three kills, and senior outside hitter Ava Adamson at times was unstoppable with four kills and three aces.

Coincidentally, Parkland’s first set win in the EPC title match was 25-18.

But all that momentum and good feeling evaporated on the very first point of Game 2. Pursell landed on the floor writhing in pain after going up for a block. The match was halted as Parkland’s athletic trainer tended to Pursell’s left ankle. Eventually, she was helped off the court, but she was unable to put any weight on her left foot.

Could Pursell and Parkland’s season possibly be over? After all, only the winner of the district championship match would advance to the PIAA tournament next week. Never mind Parkland is the second-ranked team in the state and Liberty is No. 5, according to the most recent Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association Top 10 poll.

“My pain and reaction, I think, was more from the shock of it happening again,” Pursell said. “I stepped on (the foot) of one of my opponents. I did the same thing last year.”

With Pursell off the court, Liberty forged to a 9-6 lead as Parkland uncharacteristically committed five errors. The Trojans scored the next point, and who then appeared at the scorer’s table to check back in but Pursell.

When the Parkland fans realized it was No. 11 re-entering the match, Pursell received a thunderous ovation, much like the return of the New York Knicks’ Willis Reed at Madison Square Garden prior to Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals (look it up on YouTube, kids).

“I got it (ankle) checked out and had it retaped,” said Pursell, who posted 19 kills in last year’s state final loss to juggernaut North Allegheny.

Liberty didn’t seem to mind Pursell’s return. The Hurricanes ran off four of the next five points as setter Lora Flynn served a pair of aces. Their lead eventually swelled to 19-12 behind two more points at the net by Flynn and a kill by EPC MVP Sydney Houchens.

But that snowball Parkland had been pushing up the hill all game started to roll downhill and began to gain speed. Part of it was Pursell literally finding her footing.

“I was a little tentative when I returned,” said Pursell, who was contributing points at the net without leaving her feet. “But then adrenaline takes over and you don’t feel the pain.”

Translated, she contributed three points on a pair of high-flying kills and a block as the Trojans went from trailing 21-18 to leading 23-22.

Liberty went ahead 25-24 on an ace from Bailey Corrigan and an errant Parkland serve. But the Hurricanes just couldn’t nail down the winning point, and that opened the door for the Trojans to win the set on kills from Adamson and Allison Reimer and an ace from Adamson.

“Resiliency, that’s what it was,” longtime Parkland coach Mike Krause said. “The girls stayed together; they didn’t panic. We actually practice adversity (situations) in practice.”

Liberty coach Connor Swigart could only imagine how the match might’ve played out had his team been able to prevail in Game 2. The Trojans had lost just one set all season.

“That second set … we talked all year about when you’re playing a great team like Parkland you can’t let that happen. You have to close the door,” Swigart said. “We win and it could’ve changed the dynamic of the match.”

Liberty trailed for most of the first half of Game 3. Houchens’ kill briefly put the Hurricanes into the lead at 15-14. They tied it twice more (16-16, 17-17) and then fought off four match points to tie it again at 24-24 on a kill by Corrigan from the back row, an ace from Isabella Martens and another crafty point by Houchens at the net.

Ultimately, the odds worked against Liberty. Parkland hoisted its ninth straight district championship trophy as Adamson drilled her 13th kill and setter Maggie Smith, who already has 2,000 career assists as a junior, ended it with an ace.

“This (championship) means a lot because we didn’t want to be the team that ended the (district title) streak,” Pursell said. “We really wanted to make it back to states and try to win it this time.”

Krause knows the streak is there, but he said the coaches never discuss it with the team.

“We just tell them to go out and play the best you can,” he said. “They’re great kids and great students as well.”

Swigart was equally as proud of his team.

“This group of seniors was my first class as freshmen when I become the head coach,” Swigart said. “They were totally about leaving it a better program.”

Corrigan, a sophomore, led Liberty with unofficially 13 kills, and Houchens added eight kills.

Parkland will open the state tournament on Tuesday against the fourth-place team from District 1.

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Corky Blake can be reached at [email protected].

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