Plum volleyball team savors remarkable turnaround season

Saturday, November 21, 2020 | 11:01 AM

Plum entered this season with the expressed goal of reaching the WPIAL Class 3A girls volleyball playoffs.

Wait. The playoffs? Plum went 3-21 in Class 4A section play the previous two years, including 0-12 in 2018.

Turns out the Mustangs sold themselves short.

Led by All-American middle hitter Makayla Jackson, Plum rolled to a 14-0 record in Section 1-3A, winning its first section title since 2011. The Mustangs didn’t lose a game in their first 12 matches, finishing 42-3 in section games, and swept eventual WPIAL Class 3A champion Franklin Regional.

The memorable season came to a halt when the No. 2 seed Mustangs fell to No. 3 Montour, 3-1, on Nov. 4 in the WPIAL semifinals.

“After these last two years, it was really rewarding to have all that hard work pay off,” coach Kelsey Bonk said. “A big group became seniors this year and finally hit their stride.”

Plum, which dropped from Class 4A before the season, had defeated No. 15 seed Trinity, 3-0, in the first round and edged No. 10 Armstrong, 3-2, in the quarterfinals.

With a spot in the WPIAL finals on the line, the Mustangs lost to Montour, 25-18, 19-25, 29-27, 25-12.

“We had one bad game all year, and that was it,” Bonk said. “Just from the jump, we struggled.”

Still, the senior-heavy Mustangs had completed their turnaround from the winless 2018 season.

Jackson, senior outside hitter Megan Bologna and senior defensive specialist Julia Vargo earned first-team all-section honors.

Sophomore middle hitter Dannika Susko and sophomore setter Sam Glatz made second-team all-section, and senior middle blocker Jen Taylor was named to the third team.

Other seniors who went from tough times as underclassmen to adding a section championship to the banner in the gym were defensive specialist Brooke Depkon, setter Megan Franzi, outside hitter Francesca Iervoline and outside hitter Emma Muldowney.

“For the group of seniors, it was really hard in the first years,” Bologna said. “We expected so much out of ourselves and to have loss after loss was really frustrating.

“This season, especially with the covid restrictions and almost not even having a season, we worked extra hard, always knowing this may or may not be our last game. To end up pulling out an undefeated season was pretty crazy for all of us.”

The 6-foot-1 Jackson fueled the Mustangs. The Pitt recruit led Plum in kills (212), aces (45) and blocks (43) and tied with Vargo for the team lead in digs (154).

“Everyone probably looks at her as just a big middle,” Bonk said of Jackson, “but what’s very underrated is all the other things she did for us. She did it all.”

The Under Armour voters took notice, naming Jackson a third-team All-American earlier this month. Jackson was one of only two Pennsylvanians among 150 girls spanning three All-American teams plus honorable mentions. The other was Seneca Valley senior setter Sarah White, an Ohio State commit and first-team All-American.

Jackson received a lot of help. While she was clearly the top player on the Mustangs — and one of the best in the state — she wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of awe-struck teammates.

“One of the biggest differences from the past two years is we weren’t as reliant on Makayla to get every touch and score every ball,” Bonk said. “Obviously, she still played a huge role, but our other players around her did a very good job of being efficient when they were getting their touches. That made a huge difference this year.”

The Mustangs next season return junior defensive specialist Grace Thompson and sophomores Susko and Glatz as they try to continue the program’s momentum. The roster this season was the largest in Bonk’s five seasons with 26 girls, and the middle school numbers continue to thrive.

Bologna expects more winning down the road for the Mustangs in a sport that’s rarely in the spotlight at the school.

“We never really had too many fans at our games, and it wasn’t talked about so much,” Bologna said. “I think now, especially after this season when we did get a lot more people talking about us and more recognition, the girls coming out will want that again and want to see their year on the section champ poster in the gym.”


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