Howard volleyball's weapons were on full display Thursday night, as four different players registered six or more kills in a 25-22, 25-16, 25-22 victory at River Hill.
But now with more than half of the regular season behind them and just five matches remaining, the Lions (6-0 county, 8-1 overall) know the arsenal will need to be fully loaded down the stretch in order to remain undefeated in league play and capture a county title.
"Yeah, definitely," said senior outside hitter Sarah Sweet, who led Howard with 17 kills, about her team thinking about staying unbeaten in county, "but we're also taking it one game at a time. I think that's the biggest thing for us because the minute you start looking too far ahead, that's when thing start getting a little crazy.
"The past couple years we've been so close and this year it's really important because for some of us it's our last chance. We want to go all the way if we can."
The Hawks (2-4, 2-7), who edged Howard in the county championship race last fall, were coming off a five-set defeat to Atholton on Tuesday and once again proved a worthy opponent even without their best outside hitter in Iris Hu because of a concussion.
They couldn't match the Lions' overall firepower, but coach Lynn Paynter thinks her team will have a say in the county or regional championship race by playing the role of spoiler.
"I certainly plan to be ready and march into the playoffs," she said. "We'd love to be one of those spoilers. We've been hit before where we think we're set well and then all of a sudden a team with nothing to lose comes in.
"At this point, we have nothing to lose. By the time the playoffs come – we'll be traveling for probably all of them – we just have to come out and fight as a team and get out there and win."
The Lions went to Sweet early and often, but didn't create much separation on the scoreboard until midway through the first set. They used a 5-1 run to turn a tie into a 17-13 lead and never looked back. Sweet hammered her sixth kill to win set point, which would prove to be a theme.
"Sarah just looks so smooth and confident," said Howard coach Grant Scott. "You don't see any nerves in that kid."
River Hill came out firing in the second and took a 7-1 advantage behind a pair of kills by Heidi Li, who led the team with 11 kills. But Howard relied on its experienced veterans to climb back into it with its own 7-1 run after a timeout to tie the score at 8. The Lions carried the momentum and won seven of the next nine points – which included six total kills and two each from Sweet and Sara Binkley – to make it 15-10.
Sweet rattled off kills on three straight points to close out the set, but Binkley, Madison Paige and Christina Kundrat combined for eight additional kills.
Scott said that while Sweet carries the offense at times, the goal is always to get everyone involved – a task made easier with all-county setter Julia McKenna, who had 34 assists.
"Hopefully by the time we're done my middles each have five or six kills and my outside hitters maybe have 10 kills or so apiece," he said. "We're not just focused on one player and I really don't believe we are a one-player offense. Sarah is our important piece, but I have hitters all over the place and it's Julia's job to get them all involved."
Howard's offense continued its pace in the third set, but once again River Hill battled until the final point and had an answer for each run. In fact, neither team led by more than two through the first 42 points until Sweet once again picked up her play at the crucial moments. She knocked down kills No. 16 and 17 late to create three-point advantages at 23-20 and 24-21 and the Lions went on to win the set and match on a Hawks' service error.
Scott said the victory was big because of how well River Hill has been playing as of late.
"Coming to their gym, knowing they've improved tremendously over the season, this was not going to be an easy game," he said. "They pushed us hard."
Lions' sophomore libero Grace Sweet did well defensively and led the team with 12 digs, while Paige (3 aces), Kundrat (2 blocks, 2 aces) and Binkley ended with six kills apiece.
River Hill's Devin Hill almost single-handedly kept her team in the match late by hitting six of her seven total kills in the third set, while Serena Taj added four kills.
Howard remains in control of its county-title destiny, but several other teams are right in the mix. Reservoir, which hosts the Lions Oct. 18, is tied for first and is the lone undefeated team in the county at 9-0, while Atholton and Mt. Hebron are 5-1 and Centennial and Wilde Lake are 4-2 in league play.
Howard (6-0 county, 8-1 overall) def. River Hill (2-4, 2-7) – 3-0 [25-22, 25-16, 25-22]
Reservoir (6-0, 9-0) def. Hammond (0-6, 3-6) – 3-0 [25-6, 25-18, 25-22]
Reservoir stats: Sydney Allen (13 kills, 1 ace, 1 block, 8 digs), Amaka Chukwujekwu (12 kills, 2 aces, 2 blocks, 4 digs), Enitan Omolewa (5 kills, 1 ace, 2 digs), Brooke Saunderson (28 assists, 7 aces, 4 digs), Pam Chukwujekwu (3 blocks)
Hammond stats: Jordan Kreh (3 kills), Imani Reid (3 kills, 1 block), Hannah Gorel (2 kills, 4 digs, 7 assists), Rebekah Grayson (2 aces), Kelly Smith (9 digs), Nailah Melvin (6 digs)
Mt. Hebron (5-1, 8-1) def. Glenelg (1-5, 4-5) – 3-1 [25-22, 21-25, 25-12, 25-14]
Glenelg stats: Kara Crawford (15 kills, 2 aces), Colleen McAulay (8 kills, 4 aces), Alex Wood (17 digs, 1 ace), Maddie Southern (28 assists, 10 digs)
Oakland Mills (1-5, 4-5) def. Long Reach (1-5, 4-6) – 3-1 [25-27, 25-10, 25-13, 25-21]
Oakland Mills stats: Merina Seldon (1 ace, 19 digs, 1 kill), Naimah Jangha (1 ace, 3 kills, 9 digs, 31 assists), Rachel Snead (5 aces, 8 kills, 5 digs), Alana Joseph (6 aces, 6 kills, 7 digs), Nya Lightfoot (2 aces, 11 kills), Noemi Gonzalez (4 digs)
Atholton (5-1, 6-3) def. Marriotts Ridge (1-5, 4-5) – 3-0 [25-21, 25-8, 25-17]
Atholton stats: Lisa Zoch (16 kills, 7 dig, 1 ace), Sam Miller (13 kills, 2 assist, 7 digs, 2 aces), Brooke Mason (5 kills, 2 aces), Nikita Rajarajan (5 kills, 1 block), Kelly Simons (3 kills, 2 digs, 1 block), Hope Kelly (37 assists, 4 digs, 1 ace), Elise Park (1 kill, 7 digs)
Centennial (4-2, 6-3) def. Wilde Lake (4-2, 7-2) – 3-2 [25-19, 25-19, 23-25, 22-25, 15-13]