After Season Moved from the Fall Due to COVID, PHS Girls’ Volleyball Primed for 2021 Campaign
YES SHI CAN: Princeton High girls’ volleyball player Amanda Shi delivers a serve during a 2019 game. Senior co-captain Shi will be looking to step up in her final campaign for PHS. The Tigers start their 2021 campaign by hosting WW/P-South on March 17. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
When the New Jersey high school girls’ volleyball season was moved from the fall to this March over the summer due to COVID-19 concerns, Patty Manhart wasn’t fazed.
“I was really optimistic that things could be improving; I know that the direction for teaching was starting off slow, starting off remote, moving to hybrid, and getting more kids in the building,” said Princeton High girls’ volleyball head coach Manhart, who guided the Tigers to a 19-8 record in 2019, winning the BCSL (Burlington County Scholastic League) tournament and advancing to the second round of the state Group 4 tournament along the way.
“So if that was the direction we were going for school, I was hoping that would keep up with sports and by that time we would have figured out the protocol and the safety. I felt good. I feel like everyone is more comfortable being in the building. We know that the safety procedures are in place.”
Upon arriving in the gym on March 1 for the start of preseason practice, the PHS players displayed a comfort level.
“A lot of my girls are in the all remote cohort so they haven’t been coming into school and they haven’t really been seeing their friends,” said Manhart.
“So it was just like this is totally different but we are just happy to be here. I have really enjoyed just seeing them and being back even though the season feels different. There are some things that are the same and being able to get back together to work and laugh again has been really nice.”
Not having a preseason over the summer, Manhart has to be more efficient in the limited time she gets with her squad.
“Normally if we were in August before the school year starts, we could do double sessions and be together for a few hours,” said Manhart.
“This year it is 90-minute practices per day so that has been a big change.”
Facing Montgomery in a scrimmage last week, PHS worked out some kinks before its opens regular season play by hosting WW/P-South on March 17.
“We had our first scrimmage against Montgomery on Thursday and it felt rushed,” said Manhart.
“When we got out there on Thursday, we showed we could hold our own. We dropped all three sets against them which is OK for the very first match of the season. The girls know that is not where we would be if we had more time together to work on things. My feedback to them is that this is the starting place. It is OK if this is how we come out because that just speaks to all of the things we could still do to get better. That was not us after training for four weeks.”
Having lost a stellar group of seniors that led the program to success in 2019, Manhart is looking for her Class of 2021 to fill that void.
“I think the junior class coming up that is now seniors is another reason why I am so grateful that we are getting a season,” said Manhart, whose senior group includes co-captains Amanda Shi and Yani Ince along with Malia Gildersleeve, Carly Hubert, Megan Li, and Kylee Tucholski.
“They have been just waiting for their turn; they have been playing together since their freshman year. This will be the first time that they are in the starting lineup. I think there is that nice waiting for their moment and now it is here. They have been jelling together really nicely.”
The seniors figure to play prominent roles this season. “Amanda is starting center: she is consistent and is the rock on the team,” said Manhart.
“Kylee is coming back to play defense. With Shiffon Qian who is going to libero this year, we have two really strong back row players. I am confident about their defense together. Yani is also a senior captain and she is a heavy hitter. We are looking to her to be our consistent hitter. Both of my middles are seniors in Carly and Malia.”
Manhart is confident that two younger players, sophomore Sarah Bielaus and junior Ayo Ince, can make an impact for the Tigers.
“Sarah was playing club in the offseason, working really hard,” said Manhart.
“She was someone as a freshman who had her eyes set on varsity and has made her way into the lineup nicely. Yani’s sister, Ayo, is also playing outside. It is nice to have two sisters out there; I feel like they have a sister-level bond and communication that translates nicely on the court.”
While Manhart believes her team has the potential to produce another winning campaign, she realizes there is little room for error.
“I think everybody is just happy to be out there and playing again,” said Manhart.
“I spoke with the captains, they are on the same page of understanding that we lost a big senior class and there are big shoes to fill. We would need to consistently play how we are capable of playing. I have girls who can serve really well and I have girls who can pass really well. I think we have a really scrappy defense. It is just a matter of we need to be on every time.