Atholton middle blocker Wande Sogbesan’s kill late in the fourth set sent the Raiders coaches, players and fans into a frenzy, as a fifth and deciding set loomed against Northern-Calvert in a 3A state semifinal match at Ritchie Coliseum at the University of Maryland on Tuesday night.
A comeback from a two-set hole was complete. The moment, as it would turn out, was short-lived.
The referee ruled the junior committed a violation by touching the net on the follow-through of her swing, meaning the Patriots had life, trailing 24-22 in the fourth set.
The shift of momentum changed drastically in a matter of seconds, and Northern took advantage.
It won the next four points, including two on kills from senior Amanda Chew, and edged the defending 3A state champions in four sets, 25-18, 26-24, 24-26, 26-24, to advance to the state championship game for the 14th time in program history.
“When the ball hit the floor, all of our faces dropped,” said Chew, who finished with a match-high 26 kills. “But when they called it on our side we said this is it, this is our chance, and we knew it was meant for us to win.”
The Patriots (18-1) will face Westminster on Saturday night in the final for a chance to capture their first state crown since 2015 and 11th overall. They have won the title in their last nine state championship game appearances.
“I can’t even describe [the emotional swing] because I was off my seat screaming and then suddenly I had to sit back down, and I was like, OK, let’s regroup and see what happens,” Raiders coach Rob Moy said.
Said Atholton senior Kelly Simons: “Just going from sky high happy to just down low, knowing you have to get the next one and you can’t count on the one from before.”
Northern entered the state semifinal having lost just five sets all season and raced out to a two game lead. It closed out the first set on a 6-2 run and totaled 11 kills from five different players, and the momentum carried over into the second.
Chew, who leads the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference in kills and hitting percentage, had three kills early in the stanza to give her team a 10-5 lead.
“They kept going around our block,” Simons said. “When we could, we blocked them, but they just kept finding the holes and going there and going there and going there.”
As defending state champions, Atholton had a target on its back all season. It managed an undefeated county record and to win its second straight 3A East regional title, but Simons said the team sensed the pressure the moment they walked into the same gym in College Park a year after winning it all as underdogs. She said it was the reason for the slow start.
“I definitely felt it when we walked it. I could tell it was going to be a big game and everyone was kind of expecting it, and I knew we couldn’t count Northern out,” she said. “They are a really good team and they had a lot of seniors who wanted it and they fought really hard for it.”
The Raiders (16-2), however, found their groove after a timeout early in the second game. Junior Lisa Zoch (18 kills) had four kills during a 9-4 rally to tie the set at 14, and neither team led by more than two the rest of the way. A kill by Zoch gave Atholton set point, up 24-23, but a Chew kill sparked the Patriots, who won the last three points.
Atholton took a 16-8 lead behind 13 points on by either a kill or block to start the third set, but once again Chew carried Northern back into the match. She hammered three consecutive kills to cut the deficit to five, and four straight kills by Allie Timbario (11 kills) later in the stanza tied the game at 23.
But this time, facing match point, Atholton rallied behind a Zoch kill and won the final two points to force a fourth set.
“They were the biggest and toughest team we faced all year at the net,” Northern coach Bobby Gibbons said. “That’s a big team and it took us a lot of work.”
Northern took an early 5-0 lead and later went on a 4-0 run to take a 19-15 advantage. The Raiders recovered again and won four straight points to take a 24-21 lead before the net violation changed the momentum.
“It’s definitely an emotional roller coaster,” Chew said. “We did not want to go into that fifth set. We were just fighting so hard and wanted to finish it.”