MECHANICSBURG — When Clarion and Marian Catholic hit the court against each other Saturday morning at Cumberland Valley High School for the PIAA Class A championship, it will be a battle of true state powers.
Both programs are no strangers to playing in the state playoffs — or battling for state titles — but given the success of the programs the past two decades, they are surprisingly strangers to playing each other.
Saturday will mark the fourth time the District 9 champion Lady Cats will play for a Class A state title under veteran coach Shari Campbell, while the Fillies will be competing in their seventh PIAA championship game since 2003.
Marian Catholic has two state titles on its resume, winning it all in 2003 and 2013 — with the latter being the year after Clarion captured its lone state championship in 2012. The Fillies also were the state runner-up in 2005, 2014, 2016 and 2017, while Clarion was also the runner-up the two years prior to its title (’10 and ’11). The Lady Cats are still the only D-9 program to ever reach three straight PIAA finals in a team sport.
Despite those impressive resumes, Saturday’s meeting will be just the second meeting between the schools in two decades and first since the PIAA went to a true bracket-style tournament for volleyball in 2012 when Clarion won its lone state title.
The only other matchup came in 2001 during the old quarterfinal pool-play format when the final three rounds happened in a two-day event at Shippensburg University. Clarion and Marian Catholic were in Pool B with Farrell (D-7 champ) and Canton (D-4 champ) that year.
Marian Catholic won the pool, while Farrell also advanced to the semifinals as the pool runner-up. The Fillies were then swept in the state semifinals by West Shamokin, which was in District 7 at the time, to set up an all-WPIAL final that was won by Rarrell.
The teams have come close to meeting in between though.
When Clarion won its title in 2012, the Lady Cats swept Williamson, 25-14, 25-14, 25-9, after the District 4 champs had beaten Marian Catholic in the semifinals. Conversely, Marian Catholic lost state finals in 2014 and 2017 to teams that had upended the Lady Cats in the semifinals.
In 2014, Greensburg Central Catholic rallied to beat Clarion in five sets to reach the finals, where the Lady Centurions once again won a five-set thriller against Marian Catholic. Maplewood held those honors in 2017, as it swept Clarion and Marian Catholic in the semifinals and finals, respectively.
Clarion has lost nine times in the state playoffs to the eventual state champ since Campbell took over the program in 1999, a 22-year run that has featured 17 state playoff appearances overall. Six of those losses have been suffered since 2010, with five happening in either state semifinals or finals.
Campbell, who recorded her 400th career coaching victory in the D-9 semifinals with a sweep of Oswayo Valley, was recently named one of four Coaches of the Year in Region 2 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA), which consists of five states – Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia – and the District of Columbia. The AVCA is in its second year of existence.
While all that history is nice to talk about, most — if not all — of it goes out the window Saturday once the opening whistle sounds. At that point, the outcome will come down to the talent on the floor and how they execute game plans put into place. And, both teams are not short on talent.
Clarion boasts a pair of outside hitters in junior Korrin Burns and senior Erica Selfridge who reached the 1,000-career milestone in the postseason. Their success is handled by senior setter Brenna Campbell, daughter of head coach Shari Campbell, who went over 3,000 career assists earlier in the postseason.
Burns, whose older sister Ellie was the libero on the 2012 state championship squad, leads the team in kills this season with 341. Selfridge (206) went over the 200-kill mark in Tuesday’s semifinal sweep of WPIAL champ Bishop Canevin, while Campbell has 650 assists on the year.
While that Big Three lead the way, this year’s success is attributed to much more than just that trio though as the Lady Cats have lost just one set all year while compiling a 23-0 record. That one set was dropped in a regular season match against Maplewood, which lost in the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals Saturday to D-6 champ Philipsburg-Osceola.
Sophomore outside hitter Aryana Girvan provides a strong option opposite Burns or Selfridge and has 121 kills on the season, while junior middle hitter Payton Simko (71 kills) provides some nice cover in the middle.
That group also largely stays on court in the back row — both for defensive purposes and serving. Another main cog in the back row is sophomore libero Jordan Best, who ranks second on the team in service points (187), behind only Campbell’s 274. Selfridge (162), Burns (159) and Simko (133) are all over the century mark in regards to service points.
On the other side of the net, full stats were not available for Marian Catholic, which is led by senior Alivia Karchner — who plays on both the outside and in the middle.
Karchner had 26 kills, five aces and 11 digs against in a hard-fought five-set state semfinal win against Sacred Heart Academy, 25-16, 25-22, 24-26, 16-25, 16-14, Tuesday night.
The Class A state final is slated to begin at 10:30 a.m.