Highlights of Atholton's 3-0 win over Centennial in the 3A East regional semifinals on Wednesday, November 8, 2017. (Tim Schwartz / BSMG video)
HOWARD COUNTY, MD — Atholton volleyball coach Rob Moy has been around long enough to understand that anytime Centennial steps on the other side of the court, the Eagles are a serious threat. Any squad led by coach Michael Bossom, who has won more state titles than anyone in Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association history with eight, will battle for every point until the final whistle.
“It’s their history. They are known for being really good,” Moy said. “I hate coaching against Bossom because I know any kind of screw up we make, he’s going to pick up on it and abuse it. So it’s a question of how many problems can we avoid so he doesn’t take advantage of it.”
The Raiders, however, are battle tested. They won 12 of their final 13 matches last year to win the 3A state championship, and this year, with the majority of that roster still in tact, they proved Wednesday night just how hungry they are to repeat.
No. 2 Atholton thrived in the stressful situations and swept the No. 13 Eagles, 25-22, 29-27, 25-19, to win their 11th straight match and advance to the 3A East regional championship game for the third straight year.
And while Centennial has etched itself deep into the record books, Atholton is beginning to make a little history of its own. The Raiders improved to 15-1 on the season and have won 27 of their last 29 contests dating back to September 29, 2016.
“We have a lot of energy and we want it really bad,” senior middle blocker Kelly Simons said. “We know we can do it, we’re just working hard in practice every day and pushing each other.”
The Raiders played their best down the stretch in the first two sets. They went on a 5-0 run to break a 14-14 tie in the opening game and never relinquished the lead. Lisa Zoch, who had six kills in the set and finished with 14 overall, hammered down two in a four-point span, and Simons closed the game with a kill.
Zoch, a junior, has been her team’s go-to hitter all season. Moy said her teammates always look her way when they need a kill in a tight situation.
“She hits from anywhere and that’s what I love about her. She’s aggressive, she’s willing to take on the responsibility,” he said. “... They’re always looking for her because they know if anyone is going to be smart enough to terminate, she’s always going to at least keep the ball in play.”
In the second set, Centennial (10-6) went on an early 5-0 run thanks to four consecutive aces from Jackie Sterenberg (12 kills, six aces) to take a one-point lead, and later went on another five-point tally to turn an 18-15 deficit into a 20-18 advantage. Zoch kept the Raiders within striking distance with a kill and ace on back-to-back points, and a block by Brooke Mason tied the score at 22.
The teams traded the next eight points and a kill by Emily Dewhurst gave the Eagles a 27-26 lead, but Atholton never wavered. It won the final three points to close the game and take a two-set advantage.
“You know you have to get that two in a row. You can’t just get one — that’s not going to cut it — you have to get that two, and getting those is the toughest part,” Simons said. “You can get that five in a row in the middle, but getting those last two is the toughest part, and we had to buckle down and get it when it was important.”
Atholton had five different players contribute six kills and two blocks during a 9-2 rally early in the third set to take a 14-9 lead, and the Eagles never recovered. The Raiders ballooned the advantage to 20-13 and held off one final comeback attempt to complete their ninth sweep of the year.
Atholton will travel to J.M. Bennett on Friday for the 3A East regional championship game. The Raiders won that playoff matchup, 3-0, on the road a year ago in the regional semifinals.