Upper Dublin Edges Pennridge to Win Program's First District Crown

Upper Dublin edged Pennridge 3-2 in a riveting District 1 3A title match at Bensalem High School on Thursday. Photos provided courtesy of Jon Sklut. Check back for a gallery of photos: https://solsports.zenfolio.com/f111054175

#1-5 UPPER DUBLIN 3, #1-2 PENNRIDGE 2 (24-26, 25-21, 24-26, 29-27, 17-15)
It’s a moment they’ll undoubtedly replay again and again.

The moment Campbell Heckler’s serve ricocheted out of bounds off a Ram player for match point, setting off a euphoric celebration as Upper Dublin’s players converged on the court. With their hard fought 3-2 win over perennial SOL and district power Pennridge in Thursday’s thrill-a-minute District 1 3A championship match, the Cardinals ensured themselves a spot in history - this is the program’s first ever district title.

“This feels so good,” UD’s Cole Brown said. “This is the best moment of my life so far, by far. It just feels really awesome.”

Terrell Turner, who had a big night at the net, got his first taste of volleyball as a sophomore swing player.

“I could not have imagined anything like this – this is all I ever wanted,” UD’s senior outside hitter said. “It’s crazy.”

The road to the title was a minefield for the fifth-seeded Cardinals, who travelled to fourth-seeded Pennsbury and edged the Falcons 3-2. Another road trip – this one to the tournament’s number one seed Haverford – resulted in a 3-1 upset of the Fords, setting the stage for Thursday’s district final against second-seeded Pennridge. The Rams led 2-1 after three sets, but the Cardinals battled back, winning the next two.

“It was a crazy back and forth game, but at the end, it felt great because we got the ‘W’ and we made history,” Turner said. “Never give up. That’s what our coach tells us – never give up. No matter how many points we’re down by, just keep going, keep fighting.

“I told the guys we were going to make history, and we did it. It feels amazing.”

Thursday’s win effectively erased memories of disappointments past at the hands of the Rams.

“I just think we wanted it so much,” Brown said. “My entire time I played volleyball in high school – Pennridge has had our number. They beat us every time.

“When I was a sophomore, they beat us in the championship. Last year they beat us, this year they beat us twice. Tonight, we just really wanted to go out and beat them for once in our lives, and we did.”

According to UD junior Dominick Plaku, it was impossible to describe the intensity of a match that saw the two teams repeatedly exchange leads in five grueling sets.

“I don’t think I could put it into words, to be honest,” UD’s junior libero said. “I really don’t. Everyone was so into it – it was a completely different zone. It was something else entirely. You only see this in a championship – you don’t see it anywhere else.”

“The back and forth – you don’t practice those things at practice. You get into the moment, and you just gotta push through, and we did that. It’s amazing.”

Plaku wasn’t part of the 2021 squad that fell to Pennridge in the district title match, but he remembers it well.

“I was on jayvee, but I remember how disappointed we were and how we worked all season, and we couldn’t push through,” Plaku said. “It just feels so good to come back and do it for them, we were able to make history because it’s the first time.”

The fifth and deciding set - which included eight ties - effectively encapsulated the match. The Cardinals led 12-9 after a Turner kill, prompting the Rams to call a timeout. They reeled off three straight points and knotted the score 12-12 on a Jude Rotondo kill. Turner answered with a kill for the Cardinals, and again, Rotondo answered with a kill, this time knotting the score 13-13.

The Rams led 14-13 after a kill by sophomore Bryce Ammon, but the Cards had an answer. The trend continued until Heckler’s service winner for match point.

“I just gotta give credit to all they guys out there – they just did not give up,” Plaku said. “No matter what the score was, we played our own game. We trusted in one another. I just love this team. I have no words for it, I really don’t.”

Both teams were remarkably resilient in a match that was a roller coaster ride of emotions, and UD coach Paul Choi attributed his team’s success to the players’ belief in each other.

“We don’t take it lightly when we say we’re a family because we really are,” the UD coach said. “No one complains about playing time, no one complains about their roles. Whatever their responsibility is – they take it, and they run with it. They do a really good job at that. I give credit to them – they don’t give up, they don’t ever give up.”

Thursday’s title match was the third meeting between the two teams this season. Pennridge won both regular season matches – eking out a 3-2 win on March 21 in the season opener for both teams and earning a 3-0 sweep in the rematch April 18.

“We made a couple of lineup changes going into districts,” Choi said. “We took a look at our side and what we could do better.

“With different responsibilities, the kids really didn’t care. They took off and ran with those responsibilities. I think those tweaks have made us even better of a team.”

In the opening set, the Rams turned a 6-6 tie into a 15-8 lead and still led 22-18 only to see the Cardinals battle back to even the score at 22 after back-to-back blocks by Frayne Seamus and Turner. The Cards led 24-22 after another Seamus block, but the Rams refused to go away. Kills by Logan Jalosinski and Rotonodo evened the score, and the Rams won it after back-to-back kills by Rotondo.
The second set – the only set decided by more than two points – saw the Cardinals open up a 14-8 lead, but the Rams rallied to knot the score 19-19 after an Evan Jalosinski winner. The Cardinals closed it out with a 6-2 run to earn the win and even the match.

In the third set, neither team could get any real separation. The Rams led by two late, but a Gabe Copley kill evened the score 21-21. The Cardinals led 24-23 after a Cory Pendleton kill, but kills by Logan Jalosinski and Rotondo put the Rams on top 25-24, and they won it on a UD hit out of bounds.

The Rams led the fourth set 20-17 after a Rotondo kill, but the Cardinals battled back, evening the score 23-23 after a Landon Kullmann service ace. There would be four more ties before the Cards closed it out with a Frayne block.

“A lot of it had to do with staying composed, not letting fear get into them and not showing fear, showing that confidence,” Choi said of his team’s comeback with the match on the line. “They did a really good job there. With a match like this, anything can happen, but we tell them to stay aggressive, go for the big shots, and that’s what they did.”

With the match deadlocked at 2-2, the stage was set for the fifth set thriller and a Cardinal win that put the 2023 squad in the record books.

“Ever since I took over the program – just to be competitive was our first goal, and then we ended up finding a way two years ago splitting with Pennridge for the conference, so our expectations just keep getting higher,” Choi said. “The district championship – we’ve been in this situation before against Pennridge, so this was a nice little – I don’t want to say a revenge match but a place we’ve been before. We knew how close we were before, so it was nice to finally be able to check that one off the list, and we’re in states.”

For the Rams, setter Evan Jalosinski had a busy night, handing out 54 assists to go along with eight digs and three blocks. The Rams received big efforts at the net from Rotondo (21 kills, 11 digs), Ammon (15 kills, 6 blocks) and Logan Jalosinski (12 kills, 14 digs, 4 blocks, 2 aces). Thomas McKinney added seven kills and nine digs, and Aaron Ladd had six kills and four blocks. Ty Porter added 11 digs.

“We didn’t hit at a high efficiency, and I think they forced us into that a little bit with their block – they blocked well,” Pennridge coach Dave Childs said. “If you saw them at the beginning year until now, it’s night and day. They made some big changes. Credit to Paul (Choi) for figuring it out. We knew what we were getting, and they would be much, much better, and they certainly were.”

For the Cardinals, Turner (15 kills, 2 aces, 9 digs, 4 blocks), Pendleton (10 kills, 4 digs, 2 blocks), Copley (8 kills, 2 blocks), Kullmann (6 kills, 4 aces, 6 digs, 1 block) and Frayne (9 blocks, 1 kill) had an impact at the net. Brown had 39 assists and eight digs. Plaku added 11 digs and one kill, Ari Weiner contributed six digs, and Heckler had four digs and one ace.

“I give Pennridge so much credit – Dave does a phenomenal job with his program year after year,” Choi said. “Ten out of 14 years being in the (district final) – that’s incredible, so to be able to finally beat him on the big stage, it means a lot to us, it means a lot to the kids.

“They put a lot of hard work in – as goofy as they can be, but they’re a tight-knit group and they don’t back down.”

There was no mistaking the significance – and influence - of UD’s small but spirited student section behind the UD bench. 

“Our fans are one of the best in the entire league,” Plaku said. “Without their energy, I don’t think we could have been able to push through time and time again. We love having them there, and we appreciate them so much. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

“Our fans are definitely some of the best,” Brown said. “We spread the word - they all come out, and they’re great.”

Both teams advance to upcoming PIAA 3A Tournament. Upper Dublin (17-4, 10-4 SOL) will face the District 12 runner-up in an opening round match, and Pennridge (18-2, 10-0) will take on the District 12 champion.