If the high school volleyball coaches at Howard and Atholton had to grade their teams after Tuesday's Lions-Raiders match, each team's report card would be covered with red ink.

One good thing did come of the four-game, two-hour marathon at Howard -- a winner. Undefeated Atholton found some contentment in its second victory.

Winless Howard found more frustration while going down to its second defeat.

But it was the way that Atholton ground out its 14-16, 15-9, 15-12, 15-7 triumph that unnerved both coaches.

Except for a reasonably well-played first game, neither team could find its stride. Blown serves, missed returns, sloppy passing, shaky setting and general inconsistency were the orders of the day. When each game takes an average of 30 minutes, the quality of volleyball usually isn't pretty.

Granted, the season is still young, and the Raiders and Lions have been working with thin rosters lately.

Atholton lost starting junior Carla Clang to a knee injury in the opening minutes of its victory over Meade. Clang, who figured to play a variety of positions, will be lost for at least six weeks and probably will miss the season.

Howard had lost its premier player, senior hitter Bridget Repsher, for 10 days to mononucleosis. Repsher returned to practice Monday, played sparingly against Atholton and actually performed well. But the Lions will need her to return to top form quickly to make a run at the county title.

And junior hitter Kara Gontkovic showed the effects of the flu that's bothered her lately, as she scored six kills in the first game -- Howard's only victorious game of the season -- but struggled from there on, scoring just two more. She still led the Lions with eight.

Neither coach was content to pin the sloppiness of the match on those excuses.

Instead, they harped on the poor serving -- the Lions and Raiders each served at a mere 77 percent success rate -- that kept each team from sustaining momentum. Atholton's Marney Treese and Amy Shellenberger, for instance, combined for 10 aces, but complemented that achievement with nine faults.

They talked about the high number of errors -- Atholton had 25, Howard 15 -- that negated Atholton's 45 kills and Howard's 25. They fretted over how many points were scored when soft returns landed untouched in the middle.

"We served pitifully. We kept letting them get back in, instead of putting them away," said Atholton coach Jon Peterson, whose Raiders were successful on 93 percent of their serves in their victory against Meade.

"Mentally, we just didn't stay in it," Peterson added. "We looked great for a couple of points, then look abysmal for a couple of points. That's a lack of concentration. Then again, both teams were making so many mistakes that it was probably difficult to concentrate. I hope I can attribute this to being early in the year."

Howard coach Kathy Arvin sounded confused about the Lions' serving woes.

"I thought it (serving) would be a strong point two weeks ago, but we did the same thing against Glenelg," she said. The Lions lost three straight to Glenelg while serving at a 75 percent success clip.

"I'm still trying to figure out what to do," Arvin added. "We were watching rather than moving. Why we didn't move, don't ask me. I'm waiting to see if we become consistent."

Arvin had more reason to be distressed, and not just because of the outcome. The Lions appeared to be in control of the match early. They trailed for most of the opening game before rallying from a 13-11 deficit to win 16-14 -- all without Repsher, who sat out the first and third games.

Howard then took a 7-1 lead in the second game, before Atholton began its comeback. With Mary Bolduc (15-for-16) and Teri Griffin (6 blocking points) serving, the Raiders climbed to within 7-6, before taking a 10-9 lead on an ace by Shellenberger. Griffin's ace finished a five-point run that won the game and evened the match.

Atholton then took a 6-0 lead in the third game and appeared to be pulling away. But the Raiders got sloppy with their serves and returns, while Howard scored seven of the next nine points to pull to within 8-7.

Atholton reeled off five unanswered points, then blew two serves as Howard rallied again, this time to tie it at 12-12. After losing two more serves, Atholton ran off three points to win.

The Raiders' 15-7 match-clinching victory looked one-sided enough on paper. But the game took over 30 minutes, thanks to 45 side outs.

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