Mt. Hebron first-year coach Tina Catanach saw everything her team had worked for this season slowly slipping away.
Host River Hill rallied from behind to win the first two sets against the Vikings on Wednesday, and letting another go would have cost them the top spot in the Howard County standings with just three matches remaining.
“It would have been heartbreaking,” Catanach admitted.
The Vikings have had their backs against the wall time and time again this season, and each time they have answered the challenge. Facing their biggest test, they did it again by winning the final three sets to beat the Hawks in five sets, 23-25, 24-26, 25-19, 25-22, 15-10.
“I’m incredibly proud of my girls,” Catanach said. “... They do everything for each other and our theme this year is ‘together we rise,’ and that was almost all seniors out there, and the fact that they could step in and come back from a two-game deficit, girls playing positions they never play, it was incredibly gratifying as a coach.”
The win keeps Mt. Hebron (9-2, 7-1 county) atop the league standings due to its head-to-head win against Marriotts Ridge, which is also 7-1 in the county, on Monday.
“Sometimes that happens in volleyball where you get a big win and then kind of peter off because you’re just coming down from that high,” Catanach said, “but honestly, I think I’m more happy with this one because that showed their character.”
The first set was a close race to the finish. Fifteen times the teams were tied, the latest at 23 apiece, but that only came after River Hill (5-5, 3-4) had two mini rallies from deficits of 22-19 and 23-21. The Hawks won the final four points and closed the stanza on a 6-1 run to take a 1-0 lead.
Morgan Amos, who had six kills in the first set for Mt. Hebron, played a few more points in the second set before leaving the game with an undisclosed injury. She did not return. The Vikings missed her presence, but before they dug themselves an early hole, they celebrated senior Sam Giles’ 1,000th career assist on a kill by Julia Talent to tie the score at 5. She finished the night 43 assists.
“My teams have been there for me the last three years and so have my coaches, and it’s really great that they can do this for me,” an emotional Giles said. “I know it wasn’t for me because we did it together, but it just means a lot.”
A 7-0 run that gave Mt. Hebron a 10-5 run gave way to a 6-0 run for the Hawks. Ultimately, the second set was a lot like the first with River Hill rallying late to steal a set. Once again, it won the final four points of the stanza to fend off two set points and win it, 26-24.
After losing the set, Catanach had a simple message to her team.
“I said, ‘you guys have worked too hard and you work too much for each other to go down like this, and you’ve had such a successful season and don’t be afraid of that success and believing, believing in yourselves. You can make a difference in this game and you can change.’ And it really was the leadership of my two senior captains Sam Giles and Lara [Szabo-Banicz]. They did an incredible job leading their team to win.”
The message didn’t click right away, as the Hawks jumped out to a 10-5 lead in the third set, but the Vikings eventually got going and couldn’t be stopped. They won 10 of the next 11 points and 19 of the next 24 overall en route to winning the set.
A back-and-forth fourth set turned when Mt. Hebron went on a 10-1 run that included three Sara Paradisi kills and an ace. River Hill got within one but the Vikings wouldn’t let another lead slip away, and Paradisi forced the deciding fifth set with a kill.
Fittingly, Mt. Hebron rallied again in the final set. This time it overcame a 10-7 deficit by winning the last eight points, six of which came via kill. Brenna Spierko had four of her 12 kills in that run.
“She’s really come in huge at really important times, and with her it’s just settling down and being aggressive, and she did,” Catanach said. “She stepped up. I mean, they all stepped up, so it was really exciting.”
River Hill coach Lynn Paynter said her team was too “casual” after winning the first two sets and they “let their guard down to a team that’s very good.” She did say, however, that it was one of the best matches her young team has played this season.
“I’m really thrilled with how the girls played,” Paynter said. “They really enjoyed themselves and each other as a team. But tonight I saw them play together as a team. It’s still a young team and they’re learning, but I was pleased with the movement that they made.”
Paradisi had 15 kills and Talent had nine for Mt. Hebron, while Shannon Hill had nine Shannon McCarthy had eight for River Hill.