Entering the Class 3A East regional playoffs, Howard’s volleyball team had lost three of its last four matches.
But it was in the regular season finale loss to Centennial that Lions coach Grant Scott saw a change.
“We were playing Centennial on their senior day and they won the first two games. They had a really good student cheering section – which they always do – and they kept screaming that they had ‘the juice,”’ Scott explained. “Well we won the third game, 25-7, and our fans said ‘now we have the juice.’ So it’s sort of been a rallying cry ever since.”
The term “juice” is often used to mean “power” or “swagger.” Since that contest against the Eagles, Howard has rolled to two postseason wins entering the regional semifinal meeting with defending champion River Hill.
After splitting the first two games with the Hawks, the visiting Lions captured the next two, completing the upset, 25-18, 8-25, 25-22, 25-21, and advancing to the 3A East championship.
“We came into this game so pumped up,” Howard senior Kristen Flint said. “We knew that we could make it to the finals and to win this was crazy.”
Howard advances to face Centennial — a 3-1 winner over Atholton in the other 3A East semifinal — on Friday, and is in search of its first regional title since 1980, which was the year that the Lions won their only state volleyball championship.
River Hill rolled past the Lions Oct. 25 in a three-game victory, and Howard was eager to prove that they were a better team now.
“We had a brutal game against them before and there were so many emotions coming into this game,” sophomore Hanna Webster said. “The difference between this game and the first one was that tonight we stayed up. When we played them before, we got down on ourselves when they started beating us.”
Howard powered to a first set victory behind crisp passing and powerful hitting at the net. Allison Holland (10 kills) finished off an assist from Webster (30 assists), and Sydney Biniak (10 kills) had a block to provide the 25-18 margain.
River Hill (12-4) battled back in the second frame after breaking open a 6-6 tie. Cassidy Davis served seven consecutive points – helped out by two kills from Sierra Baker – to go ahead 14-6. Sydni Horner put the game out of reach after serving four consecutive points.
The test this time around for the Lions would be to see how they’d respond after the Hawks tied the match at 1-1.
Late in the third set, River Hill was hoping to ride the momentum and had a 21-18 advantage. Howard stormed back, however, to knot the score at 21 thanks to two service points by Webster. Biniak had a block to give the Lions the lead, and later her serve put the set away.
“We were able to pick each other up when we got down,” Biniak said. “We knew they were going to come up ready after winning the prior game, so we needed to step up our game.”
A kill by Maya Harrison gave Howard a 21-16 advantage in the fourth set, causing River Hill to call a timeout.
Davis had one of her game-high 14 kills to stop the Lions run, but the Hawks wouldn’t get any closer than two points as Howard closed the door on a comeback.
“We’ve had our ups-and-downs, but we’ve had a good season,” River Hill coach Lynn Paynter said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t at the top of our game today and Howard was. They were firing on all four cylinders.”
Centennial advanced to the finals by defeating Atholton in a hardfought match, 25-17, 25-22, 22-25, 29-27.
Trisha Mockapetris led the way for the Eagles with 15 kills, followed by Meghan Kelley (11), Jessie Link (9), Kristen Ritchie (6) and Katerina Havlik (6). Setter Lexi White-Torruellas finished with 42 assists and 14 digs.
The Eagles (16-0) are in search of their 15th state championship banner.