LIBERTY, Mo. — In the immediate aftermath, Park Hill South’s players huddled up on the floor at Liberty Fieldhouse for one final moment together.
At times, the Panthers seemed headed toward a much-desired win against St. Teresa’s Academy on Saturday, Oct. 22 in a Class 4 quarterfinal. Instead, the momentum swung away hard at the end, and the Stars pulled away in a back-and-forth 25-16, 15-25, 25-12 victory.
Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, Park Hill South’s season ended against the same stubborn opponent for a second straight season. The Panthers went 31-2-1 in the apex season for seniors Andi Elley, Bri Bartosh, Allison Sadler, Emily Day and Sarah Knight.
“We all wanted it really bad,” said Elley, the only player on the roster to feature in Park Hill South’s Class 4 state runner-up finish in 2013 when the Panthers went 35-3-1. “We were working our butts off for it, but it doesn’t always work out your way. That’s OK.”
Park Hill South never led in the deciding third set.
A dig from Day flung over the net and landed in a vacant area of the floor, and the senior flopped to the ground after realizing she scored an unexpected point to cut the Panthers’ deficit to 15-11. The potential shot of momentum never materialized, and St. Teresa scored 10 of the next 11 points in an increasingly overwhelming display.
Park Hill South’s final point came on a thunderous kill from Elley, who finished with nine to lead the attack.
“It’s just rough because that second set we had them,” Elley said. “We have all the skills to take them. It’s just disappointing we weren’t able to do that in two of the sets.”
St. Teresa’s Academy, which posted a Class 4 state runner-up finish last season, played with energy from a noisy crowd in the opening set.
Park Hill South won a pair of lengthy rallies for the first two points but immediately yielded a 6-0 run and didn’t regain the lead. The scoreless stretch included a pair of net violations for the Panthers, who would close back within 8-7 before losing touch with the Stars despite a pair of timeouts McConnell took in an effort to regroup her players.
In the second set, Park Hill South went ahead 4-2 early to gain some much needed traction with the season on the brink.
“We did play very well in the second set, I thought,” Park Hill South coach Karen McConnell said. “We took command when they let down.”
Park Hill South’s defensive play at the net started to show with Sadler (26 assists) and junior Annika Welty (eight kills) recording three total blocks in the match and Michelle Dvorak adding two more.
A combo block from Sadler and Welty put the Panthers up 12-10, and Elley followed by rolling a serve over the net for their lone ace of the match. St. Teresa’s took a pair of timeouts down the stretch but didn’t recover with the 25-15 set margin marking the biggest lead Park Hill South took in the match.
St. Teresa’s led 5-1 in the third set after a strong kill from Gabrielle Wimes, prompting the final timeout from McConnell.
Park Hill South’s defense, which included 21 digs for Day and 13 apiece for Bartosh, Sadler and Knight, couldn’t keep up. Bartosh also added six kills in her final match, while Knight and Sadler had four apiece. Despite the deficit growing to 15-9, the Panthers continued to show strong effort until the final point.
“I felt like our seniors wanted it so bad that they put so much pressure on themselves that they didn’t play as loose as they could,” McConnell said.
In 2014 and 2015, Park Hill South lost in the District 15 finals, including a loss to St. Teresa’s last year.
The teams were split into separate districts this year with the Panthers capturing the District 16 title. They opened the playoffs earlier in the day with a 25-20, 27-25 tense win against underdog Lee’s Summit, which made the playoffs despite having just seven wins in the regular season.
Welty had 10 kills in the tighter-than-expected sectional win.
That set up the rematch with St. Teresa’s with Park Hill South seeking its first trip to the state semifinals since 2013, which also marked the Panthers’ most recent 30-win season. The talented group of seniors plus Welty helped quickly rebuild the team and avoid any losing seasons while maintaining the strong tradition of the program.
“I’m extremely proud of them,” McConnell said. “They’ve worked really, really hard in their four years in our program, and I hurt for them. I really do.”