Howard senior setter Julia McKenna – playing her first game without a knee brace since tearing her ACL in last year's 4A North regional championship game loss to Dulaney – didn't show any reservations in the Lions' four-set win over visiting Broadneck on Tuesday.
"She's medically cleared to roam free, and she showed it tonight," said Howard coach Grant Scott. "She's absolutely the key for us. She knows how to run my offense. She knows when the hitters are on an off, she knows how to distribute the ball, and she's smart with the ball. She really is the engine that drives our offense. Without her I don't know if we get all those kills."
The Lions, who won 25-13, 25-16, 23-25, 25-13, had several hitters reach double-digit kills. Senior outside hitter Sarah Sweet led the way with 15, junior middle blocker Christina Kundrat and junior outside hitter Anna Jezerski had 11 each, and senior middle blocker Sara Binkley added 10.
In the middle of it all, though, was McKenna, distributing balls left, right, backward and forward to her crew of hitters to finish with 40 assists.
Madison Paige, a junior who transferred to Howard after two years at Long Reach and finished with three kills, a pair of blocks and aces and nine digs, said, "without Julia, there would be no offense. And she's definitely one of the hardest working players I've played with in my life, so having her on the team and having her coming back from the ACL injury and knowing if she can do this then I can do this, it's definitely a huge support system for our team."
Howard won the first two sets easily and wasn't truly tested by Broadneck until the third set. The Bruins took their first lead of any set at 6-5 in the third, but the Lions battled back and eventually took back the lead at 21-20. However, Howard committed three errors in the final stretch, and Melbourne Bottorff pounded a kill to win the set, 25-23.
"They picked up their game in the third set and really started to pass – they were making a lot of mistakes early and they made it competitive," Scott said. "But I was proud of the way we played. We didn't let it get us down and we came back strong in the fourth set."
The Lions got off to another slow start in the fourth set, but with a 10-8 lead they pulled away by getting six kills – including four straight – in a span of eight points to take 17-9 advantage. Sweet and Kundrat each had two in the run, and Howard cruised to a comfortable 25-13 fourth-set victory to improve to 2-0 on the season.
"Julia pretty much has a weapon every rotation," Scott said. "Sara [Binkley] being a year older and a senior leader is really smart with the ball. Anna Jezerski is coming along. Madison Paige has been a phenomenal addition, and the middles are quick. When you can run a middle that quick with that speed it frees up those outside and right side hitters to get kills.
"It's similar to what we did last week against Mt. Hebron. It's all in our hands – we control the tempo, we control the game. We started passing the ball and we put the pedal down. It's just a matter of us just playing our game."
Kundrat added five aces to lead all servers, and the defense was stout as well. Grace Sweet and Shriya Desai each had eight digs for Howard.
On the other side, Bruins coach Tracey Regalbuto has a young team this fall and is starting three freshmen with two others on the varsity team. She said she was proud of how her team battled back to win the third set, and that she expects quick progression from her team moving forward considering the youth.
"It was nice to take a set from them. I thought they were a really good team," Regalbuto said. "They pass well and they served really aggressive. Their defense was phenomenal, and they attacked almost every ball at us. ... I just thought their pin-hitters were very dominant and they were hitting deep corners and getting easy kills off of it. They were consistent."
The match was the first of three Howard County-Anne Arundel County matchups of the season for both teams. Regalbuto says she and her Anne Arundel County coaching peers are excited about mixing it up with their neighbors to the West.
"I'm excited about it. I know I've been talking to a couple other coaches in the county and they're excited about it because we have no idea what they look like," she said. "It's good kind of physically and mentally preparing for every match instead of knowing kind of what we're going up against. Now we have to focus every match."