Atholton coach Rob Moy and players Sam Miller and Lisa Zoch talk about the team's four-set win over Damascus on November 19, 2016 to capture its first 3A state championship in 27 years. (Tim Schwartz/Baltimore Sun video)
Atholton has officially brought Howard County volleyball back to prominence.
It had been eight years since a county team last won a state championship, but the Raiders ended that drought with a 17-25, 25-21, 25-18, 25-22 win over Damascus to capture the 3A state title. It's the third state championship in program history and first since finishing off back-to-back titles in 1989.
"It means a lot. If you think about all the teams that have been playing, we finished third in the county and we took the state title. ... It's a big deal," said Atholton coach Rob Moy. "We're playing against some really tough teams. ... It's great to actually bring back a title to Howard County because it's been such a while."
Centennial in 2008 was the last county team to win it all and Larry Schofield coached that team. At Ritchie Coliseum at the University of Maryland Saturday night, Schofield – now a Raiders assistant coach – beamed with pride.
"It's really fitting that he should help us bring it back to Howard County," Moy said.
Also fitting is that Atholton sophomore outside hitter Lisa Zoch played a huge role in the victory and came up big in the biggest moments. Zoch was admittedly a nervous wreck during the Raiders' 3-0 semifinal win over Towson on Monday, but against the Hornets she finished with 13 kills, three of which came in the final six points of the final set.
"I came to the semifinals for 4A on Wednesday and I think it helped me a little to be in the gym more and to experience the atmosphere again," she said. "That helped kind of prepare me. I kind of just told myself, 'Lisa, if you do that again it would be awful.'"
Senior outside hitter Sam Miller, however, was the best player on the court and finished with 18 kills. As a freshman, she and setter Hope Kelly endured a 2-13 record and the following year wasn't much better, as they went 5-11. Now she can boast a state championship before heading off to play at Millersville University next fall.
"It's just crazy," Miller said. "Like Hope said on Monday, freshman year we had lost eight seniors and we were just not in any position to win a region title let alone a state title. This team is just insane; we have done so much more than I could imagine. We came out so strong and showed so much heart on the court. It's just incredible."
Damascus coach Rebecca Ronquillo, whose team avenged their state final loss to Northern-Calvert in the other 3A semifinal, agreed with Miller's assessment.
"They wanted it. They played hard; they played well," she said. "We were preparing for [Sam Miller] and [Lisa Zoch] and we got burned a few times on the right side. They played really hard and they wanted it. They left it all out there."
It front a packed gym, it was clear from the first point that Atholton (15-4) wasn't going to be intimidated by the bright lights or playing against a team that was playing for a championship a year ago. The Raiders came out strong in the first set with a 4-0 lead before Damascus (16-3) methodically chipped away.
Down 7-10, the Hornets went on a 7-0 run that turned the momentum and they never looked back. The Raiders would cut the deficit to three at 17-20, but Damascus closed the stanza out on a 5-0 run behind two kills and a block from Sara Gruber (13 kills).
"All I can say is I woke up and said treat it like any other Saturday," Moy said. "I knew we could do it and the confidence started waning after the first game, but once we got our passing back in gear we felt really comfortable."
Each team went numerous long runs in the second set. The Hornets opened with a 4-0 lead before Atholton rallied to score eight in a row, but Damascus answered and went on a 7-0 run before both teams settled in.
Trailing 14-11, Zoch hammered a kill and stepped behind the service line and had back-to-back aces to tie the set at 14. A Miller kill tied things at 16 and Elise Park's ace gave the Raiders a lead it wouldn't relinquish. Atholton closed out the stanza on a 10-5 run to tie the match at one set apiece.
"Atholton really got their wind and they just kept going with it," Ronquillo said. "Volleyball is one of those sports you get the momentum and you keep going with it. We kept trying to get those rallies and trying to get the wind on our side, but we struggled with it. ... They picked them up when it was needed and capitalized on it."
The Raiders used a 6-1 run midway in the third set to break a 6-6 tie and managed to hold the lead the rest of the way. The Hornets pulled the score to within one at 16-17, but Miller pounded three kills in the span of four points to help Atholton finish the set on an 8-2 run and take a 2-1 overall lead.
In the fourth set, the Raiders took a 7-3 lead before Damascus pulled to within two several times early on. The set featured several long rallies with both teams playing stellar defense, but almost every one went Atholton's way.
"That fourth set was probably our best defense we've seen all season. We had everything covered," Moy said.
"We were focused on getting everything up and make Damascus make a mistake," Miller added.
Eventually, the Hornets tied the stanza at 20, but a service error and back-to-back kills from Zoch gave the Raiders a 23-20 edge. Zoch had another kill to set up match point and a kill from Brooke Mason (7 kills, 2 blocks) gave Atholton its first state title in 27 years.
"I haven't been alive for 27 years, so I can't gauge that time," said Zoch. "It's a long time."
"It's something that we're going to remember for the rest of our lives, especially the seniors," Miller said. "Like coach always said, you're not always going to remember a club tournament win but you will definitely remember a state title."