With it’s season on the line, down 2-1 against three-time defending state champion Sherwood, Howard dug down and found a little something extra Wednesday night in the 4A North region semifinals.
Behind Sydney Biniak’s season-high 27 kills, the Lions rebounded to win the final two sets for a 3-2 victory that advances them into a regional championship match-up against Dulaney on Friday.
“Our backs were against the wall and it was do or die, so we just kept telling each other to keep fighting,” said Biniak, who delivered five kills in the decisive fifth set that Howard won, 15-5. “We’re weren’t ready to lose, not here in our house. They took those two sets, but we knew we weren’t done.”
Having dropped the second (28-26) and third (25-23) sets by two points apiece, Howard leaned on its seven seniors to help the team regroup before heading back out for the fourth set. And, with the same composure they have shown throughout the season on the way to a 15-1 record, the Lions delivered.
Howard jumped out to a 14-3 advantage in the fourth set on the way to an emphatic 25-9 decision that tied the match. Then, with Sherwood reeling, the Lions closed the door with a dominant fifth set as well.
“Tonight was one of those nights where a heavy senior squad makes all the difference,” Howard coach Grant Scott said. “Everyone was all abuzz after we had lost two in a row and then those calm heads stepped in and just said ‘settle down, let’s get back to what we do best.’ They never let themselves get too caught up in all the emotions.”
The emotions of being at home in front of a large crowd seemed to work in Howard’s favor early on. The Lions scored five of the night’s first six points and cruised to a 25-14 victory in the first set.
That quick deficit, however, only seemed to light a fire under Sherwood’s team. The Warriors responded by opening the second set on a 12-4 run.
“You don’t take a game like that from a team of Sherwood’s quality and have it not be a wake-up call,” Scott said. “I knew the second game, they were going to come at us with everything they had. I didn’t think we would go down as much as we did, but I definitely knew what was coming.”
Howard did battle back, actually taking a lead by as many as two points on several occasions in that second game, but eventually fell short by two points. Sherwood (14-2) suddenly had its swagger back.
“To be honest, we didn’t change too much. We stuck to the scouting report that we had and, honestly, kind of had to just wait for them to come back down to earth a little bit from their momentum in game one,” Sherwood coach Brian McCarty said. “They were playing lights out and I thought once we got to game two we were able to settle down a little bit.”
Sherwood continued to battle in game three, trading leads with the Lions several times. Howard had late leads, including an advantage of 21-20, but simply couldn’t create any separation.
The Warriors did a particularly good job in the middle sets of neutralizing Howard’s power-hitting front line of Biniak, Courtney Merson and Maya Hairston.
“They were one of the best we’ve seen all season … we had to really work to find the holes to get our kills,” Biniak said. “When you are playing against a great defense like that, it gets really tiring after awhile. But you have to stay with it and be scrappy just like them.”
Sherwood ended up squeaking out another two-point victory in that third set to go ahead 2-1.
But, just when it seemed Sherwood had everything going its way, Howard found life. Hannah Webster (34 assists) began finding her front-line players in good spots, Merson (5 blocks) delivered a couple big plays and Lizzie Berg (17 digs) kept finding ways to keep balls alive.
And, most importantly, Biniak found her rhythm.
“We just couldn’t match (Sydney’s) size and athleticism,” McCarty said. “A couple of those thunderous booms and it’s amazing what that does for their momentum.”
Howard never trailed in the fourth set, putting together multiple runs of four or more straight points.
There was no slowing down in the fifth set either, with the Lions racing out to a 9-3 cushion. Eight points later, Howard's girls watched a Sherwood return sail long and the match was theirs.
“This is huge. No doubt about it, this is huge,” Scott said. “Going up against a three-time state champ, our first time in 4A, and winning this is absolutely a feather in our cap. But we have to remember that it’s only one feather.
“We’ve still got three more games to go … we’re not done yet.”