'Special group' could take York Catholic girls' volleyball program to great heights

  • The York Catholic girls' volleyball team is off to a 9-0 start this season.
  • The Lady Irish are ranked No. 4 in the state in Class 2-A by the state's coaches.
  • The Irish also sit in the No. 2 spot in the latest District 3 2-A power ratings.
Avery Heist of York Catholic, right, gets a kill past Bermudian Springs blocker Aida Sponseller, Monday, October 19, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

York Catholic girls’ volleyball coach Phil Autrey was admittedly eager to get to work on the 2020 season as soon as the 2019 campaign ended.

His enthusiasm was not surprising. In 2020, Autrey was set to coach a team loaded with six seniors, including Shippensburg University-bound Hope Leavy-Gaskins, and seven juniors.

“I knew what we had coming back,” Autrey said. “I just couldn’t wait to get back into the gym with this group.”

Mix in the realization that parochial rival Delone Catholic would be facing a bit of a rebuild after the graduation of standouts Maddie Clabaugh and Brooke Lawyer, and it was even more clear why Autrey was so excited for this fall.

COVID-19 scare: It seemed as if nothing could knock the excitable Autrey off Cloud Nine — until COVID-19 entered the picture back in March.

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Even while things seemed to get better with the coronavirus over the summer, Autrey had a feeling that the pandemic could wreak havoc on a potential breakout season.

“I have friends that coach in other states, and there are very few states right now that are playing volleyball,” Autrey said. “Most of them have moved it to the spring.”

As the calendar turned to August, Autrey wanted to keep his squad grounded with the reality that they might not play a full season or even at all this fall.

Season has gone relatively smoothly: Fortunately for the Irish coach, the season that he believed might not happen at all has actually gone off with relatively few hitches thus far. Yes, the season started late and is shortened, but only one volleyball program in the entire York-Adams League — West York — has been forced to pump the breaks on the season because of COVID-19 concerns.

“It’s worked out pretty well,” he said. “The girls have been great, and I think that we as a volleyball community have gone about this as safely as you can.”

Living up to expectations: With the truncated season in full swing, the YC girls have lived up to, if not exceeded, even their coach’s expectations.

The Irish (9-0) are ranked No. 2 in the District 3 2-A power ratings, just behind parochial rival Trinity and above the Squirettes (7-2), a team the Irish have defeated twice already this season. The Irish appear poised to earn the outright Y-A Division III title after sharing that crown with Delone the past two seasons. York Catholic's last outright girls' volleyball division crown came in 2007 in Division II.

York Catholic is also considered a PIAA Class 2-A title threat and is ranked No. 4 in the state in 2-A by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association. Of course, the Irish will likely first have to contend with Trinity in District 3 action. The Shamrocks are ranked No. 2 in the state and are the defending District 3 champions. Only the district champion will advance to the state playoffs.

Of course, that's down the road. Right now the Irish remain focused on the remainder of the regular season.

“Being 9-0 and everything is hard to know in the preseason,” Autrey said. “But I definitely knew what our potential would be like. In volleyball you need both talent and chemistry, and I knew we had both.”

Leavy-Gaskins a six-position threat: Most of the attention on the court circulates around Leavy-Gaskins, a 5-foot, 10-inch dynamo who is a true six-position threat. Leavy-Gaskins leads the Irish with 81 kills this year to go  with eight aces and nine blocks.

Autrey, however, most appreciates the things that Leavy-Gaskins does that go under the radar.

“She’s having a really, really fantastic year,” Autrey said. “And everyone is going to focus on her offense and how high she jumps and how hard she hits the ball, but, for me, her defense and passing is certainly something that others should take note of. She’s really worked hard at those aspects of her game, and it’s something that is almost really spot-on at this time.”

Not a one-woman gang: Having one stud player in volleyball can carry a team to the playoffs, but having several complementary parts around that player can take a team from good to great. Autrey  thinks that is the case with this year’s team.

Shannon Toomey, a 6-foot middle hitter, leads the club with a nearly .400 hitting percentage and 55 kills.

“Shannon is a really smart kid that has worked really hard over the last few years to get to this point,” Autrey said. “She’s just so smart with where she hits the ball.”

Adeline Phillips, a sophomore, is third on the team with 39 kills, while senior Keely Brennan has tallied 23 kills.

Lindsey Beck, a junior, is getting back into the flow as the team’s setter after she suffered an injury during a match against Hanover earlier this season.

Fortunately for Autrey, Madeline Walker was able to shift back into the setter position she played the past two years after starting the year at libero.

The move to setter by Walker, which came right before the team’s second battle with Delone, went as smoothly as Autrey could have hoped for. Walker dished out 33 assists in a 25-12, 25-16, 25-10 victory vs. the Squirettes.

“That match against Delone just kind of sealed the deal for me,” Autrey said. “After that I knew for certain that we have a very special group.”

— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at sports@yorkdispatch.com.