November 15, 2023

Sparked by Agel’s Gritty Play in the Libero Spot, PHS Girls Volleyball Tops Millburn in State Final

PEARL JAM: Princeton High girls’ volleyball libero Pearl Agel lofts a pass in state tournament action. Last Sunday, junior Agel contributed 11 digs, six service points, and one assist to help PHS defeat Millburn 2-0 (25-21, 25-12) in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Group 3 final at Franklin High. The Tigers went 30-1 as they earned the first state crown in program history. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

As the libero for the Princeton High girls’ volleyball team, Pearl Agel stands out among her teammates as she wears a different color jersey and can only play on the back row under the rules of the sport.

While some may see the position as somewhat thankless with no chance to get the glory of blasting kills at the net, junior Agel relishes doing the dirty work of diving for digs and setting up her teammates.

“At first, I was more into hitting and stuff … but because of my height it is kind of difficult, but also I was good at passing,” said Agel. “I know it is something that is overlooked, passing, but it is something that I enjoy a lot. I love to help the other people.”

Last Sunday, Agel helped PHS culminate a dominate campaign as it topped Millburn 2-0 (25-21, 25-12) in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Group 3 final at Franklin High last Sunday. It was the first-ever state title for the team, which ended the fall with a 30-1 record.

With a huge throng of supporters on hand at the Franklin gym, many of them waving blue pom-poms, the Tigers concentrated on the task at hand.

“We were really excited and we have been waiting a long time for this,” said Agel.

“I think we are a bit nervous, but we were just really focused on playing well. We weren’t trying to focus on the gym or the new environment. We were just going to play our game.”

The scrappy Agel played her game, diving all over the court for digs and setting up her teammates.

“I have been struggling with deep corners this year. Today I was focusing on little things that can help me get better,” said Agel who ended the match with 11 digs, six service points, and one assist. “I think that really showed this game.”

The Tigers struggled in the latter stages of the first set as Millburn went on a 5-0 run to narrow the PHS lead to 23-18 and prompt it to call a timeout.

“I think the timeout there was to give us a second to breathe,” said Agel. “Sometimes when we get deep in to the 20s in the set, we get a little overconfident. It was, ‘Reset, we need to finish it up.’”

Holding off the Millers to win the set 25-21, the Tigers finished the deal with a dominant 25-12 second set.

“It was, ‘We just need to end this, this is such an important game,’” said Agel. “We wanted to show them who is boss.”

Agel nearly ended the match as PHS went on a 3-0 run to go up 24-11 with her serving.

“That was good, I have always wanted to do that,” said Agel.

“I was really excited, I was just looking to get it over. I missed an earlier serve, so my priority was not to miss the first couple. At the end I tried to go for an ace, but I missed the short spot.”

The Tigers closed the deal and mobbed each other in the middle of the court to celebrate the historical moment.

“Since we are a new team, I think after last year we knew that we wanted to go all of the way,” said Agel, noting that PHS had fallen 2-1 to Colts Neck in the sectional final to end the 2022 season. “We had never done that before. After we got a little taste of it, there was no way we were not going all of the way this year. That has been our goal the entire time.”

In reflecting on the qualities that helped PHS achieve that goal, Agel pointed to a special team chemistry.

“We are really well connected, we just enjoy what we do,” said team co-captain Agel, who ended the fall with a team-high 297 digs along with 68 assists. “We all love each so much, and we just have fun. That is what makes playing volleyball so much better and it makes us play so much better.”

The Tigers played their best in the state tournament, winning each match in two sets with the first set against Millburn being their closest of the championship run,

In Agel’s view, playing a tough schedule steeled PHS for the state tourney.

“I think that came from playing really big Group 4 teams,” said Agel. “After that we have been focused on beating big teams and doing stuff like that.”

PHS head coach Patty Manhart saw that gauntlet of foes which included such powers as Southern, Williamstown, Paul VI, Lenape, and Hunterdon Central, among others, gave the Tigers a lot of confidence as they headed into the state tourney.

“We played a really rough schedule, it got us into good shape going into the postseason run,” said Manhart. “When you just look at power points, the girls knew that we were at the top of power points by a decent margin. I feel that gave them that extra bit of confidence to know that we are probably the best team going into it and we proved it.”

In the match against Millburn, it took a while for PHS to find its top form.

“I feel like I saw some nerves in that first set. There were a lot of Millburn points scored off of our mistakes,” said Manhart. “The good news was that we built up such a lead that we could make those mistakes and still be in good shape. As a coach, if the other team is ripping off serves, you want to do something.”

In the second set, the Tigers cut down on the service mistakes as they rolled to the title.

“That was just playing our game, they got it out of them,” said Manhart. “I told them that we miss our serves when we do something different. We were trying to be safe, but we are a tough serving team so we need to come back and do the same thing consistently. If you are in your head thinking that I don’t want to miss this serve, that is not going to be good. In the second set, I feel like they figured it out as a team so I happy with the way they played.”

Manhart was very happy with the way Agel played in the final.

“We knew this team hit across the court and she was ready for them,” said Manhart. “It was being ready mentally and physically. Pearl was there and kept those points and rallies alive. It just makes such big difference for us.”

The PHS front row trio of sophomores Naomi Lygas, Charlotte Woods, and Kaelin Bobetich also made a difference against the Millers. Lygas had five kills and six digs in the win with Woods coming up with eight kills and six digs and Bobetich contributing seven kills, three blocks, and four digs.

“When Naomi gets up to that front row, we can get a little bit of a lead built up,” said Manhart. “We are a balanced team — that is what gets you to this point. That is what helps you win, having multiple people on your team that can get the job done.”

Manhart credited Mackenzie Lyle with playing a key role in helping the Tigers win though her upbeat attitude.

“We had great senior leadership from Mackenzie Lyle,” said Manhart. “She is really the heart of this team. You can see how much it meant to the team for her to get that trophy.”

It meant a lot of Manhart to see the program reach the championship summit as it went from a club team to varsity competition in 2014.

“That is something I have to keep wrapping my head around,” said Manhart. “When I got hired at PHS, I said, ‘Do you have a girls’ team I can coach?’ and it was no, so I said, ‘OK, let’s start it’ and we got it going the next year. We take a lot of pride in this program, but it is so much what the girls do outside — one coach can’t do it alone. It is so much of the girls and their attitude and their ethic.”

Basking in the glow of the championship win, Manhart believes the Tigers can keep doing great things.

“I think my biggest feeling has been impatience because I have known that the team has been capable of getting to this point, but just being impatient to make it here and play,” said Manhart. “I am very happy, and knowing that we are returning the majority of our players, the expectation is to do it again. That is how I am feeling.”

Agel is also feeling confident that the Tigers can produce a title repeat.

“I definitely want to come back again and I want to play a really hard team and we want to do so well next year,” said Agel. “I think we have a lot of potential to do that.”