Highlights of Atholton's five-set win against Howard on Tuesday, Octover 3, 2017. (Tim Schwartz / BSMG staff video)
Just before Atholton junior Lisa Zoch stepped to the service line with the score tied at 11 in the fifth set at Howard on Tuesday night, teammate Elise Park figured there was no better time to tell a joke.
Starting with their complicated pregame handshake routine, the two are constantly making each other laugh to get rid of any lingering nerves. With four points remaining and the top spot in Howard County on the line, there was no better time.
"We have a bit of a weird energy we like to bring to the court, so I think whenever we're down, sometimes pep talks don't really work or coach talks, so we kind of just goof off and make everyone smile and laugh," Zoch said. "It gets yourself in a better mood and you boost yourself up and get out of your head and play better. We joke around to pick everyone up."
Zoch and the Raiders proceeded to win the next three points, which included an ace, and Brooke Mason closed the match with a kill to lift Atholton to a 26-24, 12-25, 14-25, 28-26, 15-12 victory over the host Lions. The No. 2 Raiders improved to 4-0 in the county and 6-1 overall while No. 9 Howard fell to 4-1 and 5-3.
"It's huge," Zoch said. "We haven't beat Howard since  and we came in here, we lost in the fifth set last year, and we said it's not going to happen again. We wanted it, and we just executed. We were down a set, down by three [in the fifth set] and we pushed and came back. It's really exciting."
Atholton started the match strong and led most of the first set until the Lions tied the score at 23 and 24. Zoch, however, put down her third kill and the Raiders capitalized on the next point to take a 1-0 advantage.
Almost nothing went right for Atholton after that. Howard broke a 5-5 tie with a 6-0 run, and after the Raiders stopped the rally with a pair of points, the Lions went on another 6-0 run to take a 17-7 lead and pull away.
The Raiders' struggles continued in the third set. They let a 5-2 lead slip away in the form of a 9-0 Howard rally, and a 5-0 run soon after put the set out of reach.
Atholton was called for at least six violations for being out of rotation in the two stanzas, an uncommon foul in the varsity game.
"I don't think that's ever happened to me in my nine years of playing volleyball. I've never been in a rotation that was that difficult to understand," Zoch said. "It was a new lineup and we really only had about an hour to practice it. It was totally new and Kelly [Simons] was setting — Kelly hasn't set all season. So that was hard."
Atholton took a 3-1 lead in the fourth set and built a 17-10 advantage before Howard chipped away. The Lions won five of the next six points to tie the set at 23 after two straight aces by Madison Paige, and they had a match point with a 26-25 lead. But the Raiders won the final three points on a kill by Bianca Smalls, an ace by Simons and a kill by Mason to force the deciding final set.
"Either team could have had it in that fourth game, but we let it go. That was tough," Howard coach Grant Scott said. "They made the plays when they needed to make them."
Scott added that the difference was Atholton's blocking in the fourth set. The Raiders had six blocks in the set and "that took my hitters out of rhythm a little bit. That was a big turning point."
The Lions led 8-5 in the fifth after a kill and block from Anna Jezerski before Atholton won six of the next nine points to tie the match at 11.
"For the girls, this was everything. The entire time they saw this as the counties, the match that would determine who would win the county championship," Atholton coach Rob Moy said. "Of course it's not the case — we still have another seven games to play — but the way they view it, if they can beat Howard, we should be the county champs. But there are other teams we can't overlook."