“I think … we come from a ‘humble beginning’ of sorts,” said Captain and setter Rachel Cheng ’18.
The PHS girls volleyball program began in 2014, when current Co-Captains Rachel Cheng ’18 and Anna Cao ’18 were freshmen. In its first year, there was no distinction between junior varsity and varsity. However, the program has since expanded. Separate junior varsity and varsity teams were created as more girls joined the program, and the varsity team won its division last year, the West Jersey Interscholastic Volleyball League, for the first time.
“Other high schools in the region, who have [had] years of success … were accustomed to really being on top. From [our] second year performance of winning four games and losing the majority of them, to winning 17 games and losing four, I think that huge gap was was something [that] other teams weren’t prepared for. That’s something we were proud of and [that we] plan to uphold,” Cheng said.
The girls volleyball program is relatively young, but it exceeds expectations. Even with a newer team, the girls varsity team has a record of 24–1, with its only loss against Rancocas Valley Regional High School.
The secret to this unforeseen success? Team chemistry.
“My teammates are some of my best friends in the entire school. Since a lot of us play club competitively, whenever we go to tournaments far away … we keep in touch. I see them everyday at school, we have lunch together sometimes, and we’ll even make ramen noodles together. We do all kinds of random stuff, and it’s really nice knowing that if I’m having a rough day or something’s not going right, or if I want to hang out with people that I know, [my teammates] are always there for me,” said Natalia Drobnjak ’19.
A new change in lineups has also given the team an upper advantage.
“It’s the first year where … we can have our starters out all the time,” Cao said. “It’s given us an advantage in how we’re able to play. We can have the starters out for longer so we have a bigger chance of winning.”
Adding onto a string of consecutive wins, the team recently won its second WJIVL title, but not without some difficulties.
“I think that we walked in expecting to be in the final. It was just a matter of us not anticipating the difficulty of the match we had in the semi final because we played [West Windsor Plainsboro South High School] before … But in the semi final match, we went three sets. We lost the first set by five points, so that was kind of a kick in the butt. We really had to change our mentality. We had to play our own game and be prepared for the rest of the match,” said Cheng.
The team was able to overcome the semi final and beat WWPS in the last two sets 25–20, leading them to the final match against Rancocas Valley, the top seeded team in the bracket. Although the team lost to Rancocas in September, they won the first two sets 25–21 and 25–12 to take their second win in the division.
“It was really good because we were able to maintain our title for two seasons now, and it also felt validating to be able to show that we could keep up our strength,” said Cheng.
After achieving one of their two main goals of the season, the team is also looking to move further in states. They play around 3–4 games per week, which allows for more experience and time on the court.
“Our goal is to make it further in states. We got knocked out last year. Hosting and being the higher seed, I think we can win at least [two rounds] in states. That’s what we have our eyes set on next,” said Coach Manhart.
The girl’s volleyball team is currently the sixth seed in their bracket.
“There is a realistic expectation of where we’ll end up because there are some really strong teams. It would be great to get to the finals, but we’re looking for a place in the top eight. We do have high hopes,” said Cheng.
As the team prepares for more difficult tournaments and games against teams that are higher ranked in their bracket, the seniors not only look back on their accomplishments, but also forward on the future of the program.
“It’s nice because I feel like I’ve been mentoring these girls for the past three years or so. For [Cao] and I, it’s sad, too, because we have to let go of this amazing group of girls … I have confidence in our juniors and all of the rising players … We have enough experience, plus Coach Manhart to pull it together next year as well,” Cheng said.
Manhart also has high hopes for the program’s continuing success. As the seniors graduate, new players will have to fill their spots, and junior varsity players will, in turn, feed into the varsity team.
“Having talented young players makes us look forward to the future of knowing that there isn’t going to be only one standout year. We can keep the success going because we have younger people,” Manhart said.