Atholton’s volleyball coach, Rob Moy, was in his 10th year of teaching at Hammond Middle School and was taking a hiatus from coaching in 1996.. None of the Raiders’ current players were even born yet.
That’s how long it’s been since Atholton last played in a state championship game, but that 20-year drought will finally end after the result Monday night at Ritchie Coliseum at the University of Maryland.
The Raiders swept Towson in straight sets, 26-24, 25-19, 25-19, to advance to the 3A state championship game. They will face last year’s state finalist, Damascus, in the final Saturday night.
“From the start of the season I, to be honest, was a little bit worried because we lost a couple of really key players from last year,” senior outside hitter Sam Miller said, “but I think we really came out on top and we really proved ourselves. We’ve just done what I couldn’t have ever imagined. I’m just so proud of us. We haven’t been here since 1996. It’s just insane.”
Miller led the way with 11 kills and five aces for Atholton (14-4), while Kelly Simons had one of her best games of the season and finished with nine kills and four blocks.
“This is fantastic,” said Atholton senior setter Hope Kelly, who had 18 assists and six aces. “We always chanted ‘states’ during my freshman year; we were so bad. It was just a dream and never even achievable or within reach or in sight. But once we made it past regional finals, we had the momentum and knew we were going to get there and going to win. I’m so confident in my team.”
In what was an overall sloppy game on both sides, the Raiders came out strong in the opening set until the nervousness kicked in.
The Generals (18-3), who had won 17 straight after starting the season 1-2, rallied from an early 5-2 deficit and eventually won seven straight points to take a 12-6 advantage. The Raiders responded by scoring eight of the next nine points to retake the lead. From there, it was a back-and-forth set that featured eight ties, the last of which came at 24-24 after a kill from Miller. Kelly served an ace and Towson’s hitting error gave Atholton the first set.
Generals coach Emily Berman said losing that first set and failing to capitalize on two set points was enough to cost her team mentally.
“That, to me, sort of started the mental breakdown,” she said. “We have our leaders, who have been our leaders all season, start to fall apart, and we have kids who need that leadership and need some guidance, and they don’t have that. So everyone sort of starts falling apart.
“I think if we had won that first game we at least would have had some better momentum.”
The chaotic play from both teams continued early in the second game, but once again Atholton was able to string together a run to separate itself. An 8-0 run turned a two-point deficit into an 18-12 lead en route to a 2-0 overall set advantage.
The Raiders, when carrying 2-0 advantages into third sets, have been overly relaxed this season, but that was not the case Monday night.
They cruised to a 6-1 lead behind three Kelly aces, and followed with another 6-0 run that featured a kill and three straight aces from Miller to make it 12-2. The Generals fought back valiantly, cutting the deficit to four, but couldn’t overcome it and saw their season end with a service error.
Towson’s Sara Mandreja had a team-high nine kills and Nicole Race added six.
“I’m proud of the season that we had,” Berman said. “I wish it had ended on a little of a better note; not even necessarily winning, but I wish we had put up a little more of a fight. The girls on this team are much better than they just showed; they’re mentally stronger than they showed, and I think that’s where we really fell apart. We let a few errors become six, seven, eight points and it was too hard to fight back.”
Moy knows his team faces a much stiffer challenge in Damascus, which beat Northern-Calvert in the other semifinal and fell just short last year, but won a title in 2013. Atholton is looking to win its first state championship since back-to-back titles in 1988 and ’89.