The momentum from Sherwood’s early two-set lead on host Howard in the 4A North region championship game had completely vanished.
And yet, heading into a deciding fifth set on Friday evening, Warriors coach Jake Achten told his girls he didn’t want them to change much. He simply wanted them to stop being afraid of making mistakes.
“Honestly, the main message was that I wanted them to be more aggressive and it started with our serving. I thought in the third and fourth sets we started playing not to lose instead of doing what got us to that point,” Achten said. “I knew they had it in them, it was just a matter of getting that belief back.”
Opening the fifth set on a 7-3 run, Sherwood found its groove and ultimately never lost it the rest of the way en route to a 15-9 victory in the clinching game of a 3-2 win (25-19, 25-20, 10-25, 21-25, 15-9) over the Lions. It’s the second straight 4A North region championship for the Warriors, who were state finalists last fall.
Sherwood (14-7) advances to play Northwest, the team that defeated it in the finals last year, in the state semifinals on Nov. 16 at Ritchie Coliseum on the campus of the University of Maryland.
On the other side, Howard (14-4) fell a game short of securing what would have been the program’s first region title since 1980. Sherwood has now eliminated the Lions in three of the last four postseasons, twice by 3-2 margins.
“It’s been tough to get over that hump and I feel like if we can just get over it that one time, everything is going to change. But there’s great teams in 4A that we’ve got to go through, Sherwood being one of them,” Howard coach Grant Scott said. “Right now, it’s just a wall that we can’t seem to break down.”
Despite the loss, though, Scott added that he was very pleased with the fight his team showed after losing the first two sets.
“I’m proud of the way we played, especially after not playing to our potential in the first two,” he said. “We came back really strong, forced that fifth set and gave ourselves a chance. It didn’t go our way, but the effort was there and that’s what you want.”
In the early going, Sherwood set the tone with its size at the net. The combination of Grace Aceto, Marissa Swamy and Isabella Kimmel delivered key blocks during both the first and second sets to keep Howard from putting together much in the way of extended scoring runs.
The Warriors ended up taking the first set 25-19 and then the second set 25-20, allowing the Lions to score more than three points in a row only once during those opening two games.
“We did our research and we were prepared for what their hitters wanted to do. The blockers did a great job taking that away at the beginning there,” Achten said. “We forced them to have to change their strategy a little bit.”
But in the third set, Howard did indeed make adjustments and started to find the holes in Sherwood’s defense. The Lions used a 12-3 spurt in the middle of the set to pull away for a convincing 25-10 victory.
“I think it was just limiting the mistakes and I mean we really haven’t had a hard, competitive match in over three weeks,” said Scott, whose Howard squad had won its previous nine matches coming into the region championship game by 3-0 margins. “So getting going in the beginning was tough, but I thought we got into a great rhythm there in the third set.”
In the fourth set, Howard kept the momentum going by outlasting Sherwood in what ended up being the closest game of the match. There were 15 ties and neither team led by more than three points until the Lions ran off four consecutive points to close the set to create the final 25-21 margin.
In the fifth set, however, Sherwood established itself with a couple long service runs and some strong kills from the senior outside hitter combination of Sarah Le and Swamy. It was Swamy who served out the match, helping the Warriors to four straight points to pull away for the 15-9 victory.
“I think having been in this spot before really helped us a lot and we definitely relied on our seniors to sit there and bring us home,” Achten said. “Our two senior outside hitters, we were feeding them the ball and they delivered. And our first two or three servers, they were seniors too. They got the ball rolling toward changing the momentum and getting us this victory.”