Towson volleyball coach Emily Berman makes no bones about her team’s biggest strength and the decisive factor that will make or break a state title run this fall.
Over the past nine seasons, which features six state tournament appearances and a championship in 2010, Berman has never had a team taller than her 2017 bunch. On Wednesday evening, the Generals put their abounding height and athleticism on display in a sweep of intra-county foe Catonsville (25-13, 25-21, 25-22).
Having the height advantage certainly appeases Berman when she formulates game plans, but it’s useless if they’re unwilling to scrap for point-saving digs, the coach says.
“That’s what we’ve been working on, is being able to cover the court,” Berman said. “This is the tallest team I’ve ever coached by far, and so we have girls who are big, athletic, who move well. But there’s still that last push they need to get over — a little bit of fear hitting the floor. Today was good for us.”
All three sets were within a handful points the majority of the way, but every time Catonsville (2-1) threatened, Towson (3-1) stepped on the gas with strong net play. The Generals ended the first set on a 9-1 run behind pivotal kills from Bria Kahnert and Claire Baudry after the Comets drew to within 16-12.
Out of the second-set gate, Kelly O’Keefe gave Catonsville an early 3-0 cushion with well-placed serves before the lead changed hands 14 times. After both sides traded points, and when it was 13-13, Towson wore down Catonsville with its length and play at the net, going on a 7-2 run to take a 20-15 lead and eventually a 25-21 win.
Sara Mandreja produced two point-saving digs and three kills during the stretch, while Tyanna Butler manufactured a pair of powerful spikes.
“It definitely helps us, especially up front,” Mandreja said of her team’s height.
In the third set, Towson built an early 5-1 cushion behind kills from Mandreja, Kahnert and Logan Marsh, but Catonsville clawed its way back to bring the contest into a stalemate at 20-20 minutes later.
“Other than them putting up a fight, you don’t know what you’re going to get from them,” Berman said of Catonsville. “Our games with them over the past few years have been very tight, like back and forth over five sets.”
But like they did all evening, the Generals rode Mandreja (team-high 10 kills and four aces) and the play making of Marsh, who tallied 19 assists, to slam the door on the Comets for the sweep.
It was another solid performance for Towson, which hopes to avenge a sweep at the hands of Atholton in last fall’s state semifinal game. The Generals return three starters from that group, including Marsh and Mandreja.
“We just want to get back there,” Marsh said.
As for Catonsville, they couldn’t capitalize on numerous occasions and unforced errors put them in predicaments they couldn’t recover from. For instance, it was a four-point match midway through the first set, but a 9-1 run against them soiled their chances. In the second set, they had it at 13-13 before stumbling across the finish line and in the third set, they just couldn’t close the deal after gridlocking it at 20.
“I think we played a little bit timid, especially in our first and second match, and then our third match, we started to come out of our shell a little bit more,” said first-year Catonsville coach Tonya Feaster, who comes over from Governor Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick County. “I told them we need to work on taking advantage of the big plays. Like getting our passes perfectly to the center, taking advantage of perfect sets and taking advantage of open holes on the court.
“I loved that this game came at the beginning of the season, because that is a tough team — one of the toughest teams we’re going to play this season. It lets us know the things we need to work on as well as the things we did well this game because I definitely think there were a lot of positives. … I loved the intensity. We have a lot of underclassmen out there. I think, going forward, that shows a lot of potential for the program overall.”