TOWSON — In a corner of the Goucher College gymnasium, St. Mary’s coach Rebekah Kruder gathered her Saints close to give one last talk. Across the floor, their opponents screamed with joy. “We Are the Champions” blared over the floor.
There would be no banner for volleyball in St. Mary’s own gym this year.
Despite the neck-and-neck nature of each game, No. 3 Catholic brought down the Saints 3-0, taking the 25-21, 25-21, 25-20 sweep of the No. 1 seed all the way to the Cubs’ first IAAM B conference crown.
It was former C conference contender Catholic’s second title overall. For St. Mary’s, though, this was its second trip to the finals. It was their second to fall short.
It stung a Saints team (15-3) that had shut out nearly every team it had faced this year, even more so for the seniors on the team, who brought St. Mary’s to its first ever title game two years ago and will graduate without one in hand.
“They fought. They fought very hard to get to this point,” Kruder said. “Everything we’ve done, they’ve been a part of. I couldn’t ask for anything more from them, and I’m very proud of what they’ve done.”
After falling to the Saints 3-1 in mid-October, Catholic pinpointed what had gone wrong and fixed it. The Cubs ran plays that employed bullet-speed right at the net to trip up the Saints’ defense.
“We came confident in our abilities. … St. Mary’s is good, but we can beat them,” Catholic senior Olivia Adams said. “Usually, when you beat a team in one set, that means you can beat them.”
St. Mary’s, on the other hand, couldn’t quite find its footing, offensively, even when it had a rally going.
“I think the excitement of today may have gotten the best of them,” Kruder said. “The other team came out to play. Unfortunately, we didn’t fully come out to play today.”
From the first serve, it was clear Catholic had the upper hand. The Cubs nailed two kills on St. Mary’s. Something was off.
The Saints kept pace with their foes for a while, aided by a few kills from junior Alli Cherry, who led St. Mary’s with 10 kills overall. For a minute, it looked like St. Mary’s was just a little behind and could shake it off.
But they didn’t.
The Cubs went on a six-point run, led by Adams, who had three kills in the period and 10 on the day.
“This year, this team was actually able to run plays. We never ran plays before. … She’s our strongest hitter,” Catholic coach Nicole Niedzwicki said.
The Saints forced Catholic out of bounds to block the 25th point, but not for long. The Cubs took the first set, 25-21.
St. Mary’s tried to throw the first loss away with a win of their own. Led off by two kills from senior Liz Harris (six kills) and one from sophomore Kerry Kelliher (three kills), they rolled to a 4-0 lead.
“I think they kind of woke up a little bit and realized, ‘Okay, we can’t just walk on here and not do anything. We really need to bring our game,’ ” Kruder said.
But Catholic hit back. Even with junior libero Marielle McAteer there with the digs to send the ball back over, they Cubs worked their way back to an advantage.
“She [McAteer] had a phenomenal game tonight,” Kruder said. “She fought hard to keep that ball in play and I couldn’t ask for her to do anything else.”
St. Mary’s aimed for a hole in the center of the Cubs’ defense, but it wasn’t there. As the Saints chased a comeback, 24-21, the Cubs shut it down, claiming game two, 25-21.
The third game was as close as the first two, with both teams swapping control back and forth on every second or third serve.
But where the Saints’ offense was just revving up, Catholic’s had exploded. Adams logged a kill and back-to-back aces; the Cubs ran off with a 21-15 lead.
“We never thought we had St. Mary’s,” Adams said. “That’s what drove us to keep going, keep going.”
Harris and Cherry bit back, spiking the hardwood with their own to shrink Catholic’s advantage.
But the last hit from the Saints flew too far. It landed in the back of the court, opening the floodgates of elated, cheering Cubs fans to the floor.
For Kruder, as bitter as the loss felt, there was promise in the future. A dozen of the junior-laden squad of 15 would be able to return next fall, on the hunt for another title run.
“We have a lot of young girls on our team here, a lot of young girls on JV,” she said. “We still look to come back next year.”