Three D-11 volleyball teams reach state final
A quick glance at the six finalists in this year's PIAA Volleyball Championships at Richland High School revealed an unusual trend: All three matches featured teams from District 11 play.
Marian Catholic was the district's Class A representative, while Bethlehem Catholic took the honor in Class AA and Parkland earned the spot in the Class AAA match.
Two of the three teams, Bethlehem Catholic and Parkland, walked away with state championships, while Marian suffered a five-set defeat to Greensburg Central Catholic.
But it wasn't the first time the schools played together this season, as all three took part in the Parkland Invitational, which was held in September.
In that tournament, the Trojans defeated Bishop Shanahan for the title, while the Fillies lost to Lansdale Catholic in the third place match. The Golden Hawks took fifth.
"There were only five teams there, and all five teams made it to the state playoffs," said Marian coach John Fallabel. "And three of them made it here to the state finals. It's an incredible tournament."
The level of play throughout the area is something many credit for helping prepare the teams for the grind of postseason play.
"It's pretty amazing," said Bethlehem Catholic's Jessica Attieh. "Coming from a district where three teams have a chance to win state titles, just shows you how high the level of competition is."
Entering their respective state championship matches, the three teams had a combined 72-2 regular season record. One of Bethlehem Catholic's two losses came to Parkland in its second match of the season.
"In my opinion, District 11, and Eastern Pennsylvania volleyball in general, has a number of very, very strong volleyball programs," said Bethlehem Catholic head coach Paul Abi-Daher. "Across the board, we're very strong."
And that competition between the schools has forged a bond of mutual admiration between players and coaches.
"We see them a lot in tournaments and we try to schedule some scrimmages. It's a tight-knit community," said Abi-Daher. "Even though we're very competitive with each other, we're very supportive of one another, especially during these types of games."
An example of that mutual admiration came when Fallabel returned a pregame visit from Parkland with a few words of motivation for the Trojans before they took on Hempfield.
But for Fallabel, the ties to Parkland, and head coach Mike Krause in particular, run deeper.
Before guiding the Trojans to their second state title on Saturday, Krause was a coach for Lehigh University's volleyball program in the mid-1990s.
One of his star players during his time there was Marian Catholic graduate Nikki Hackenberg, who was an All-Patriot League selection and won multiple awards during her four-year career with the Mountain Hawks.
Hackenberg returned to her alma mater in 1996, and with the help of Krause, launched a program that has become one of the best in the state.
"She brought me up to help run camps for her and develop some of the kids," said Krause. "But then she took it over, and obviously did a really fantastic job."
Hackenberg compiled a 160-28 record at Marian, and under her guidance, the Fillies advanced to the state quarterfinals in 1999 and 2000 and were state semi-finalists in 2001 and 2002.
Since, Fallabel has won two state championships and advanced to the finals four times, all firsts for the program.
Despite his success, Fallabel, now in his 12th year as head coach, credits what Krause did in the beginning for making much of it possible.
"He is a guy that I learned volleyball from," Fallabel said of Krause. "He set the groundwork for a lot of this."
After both schools proved to once again be among the finest teams in the state, it looks like Fallabel and Krause have programs that are certainly built on solid foundations.