Fear is a powerful thing, and when River Hill volleyball coach Lynn Paynter looked in her player’s eyes midway through the third game, trailing Damascus, two sets to none, in a 3A state semifinal match on Monday, that was all she could see.
“I thought they were ready to go home,” she said. “...(Our assistant coach) kept saying, you can’t let fear win, and she kept emphasizing that, and I think they took a hold of that and realized they were afraid.”
But once that fear went away and the Hawks decided to let loose and play the volleyball they know they can, it all clicked.
“What they showed me was what they were made out of,” Paynter added. “That they could come back, they could push hard and they won’t give up. ... We showed that we weren’t going to let fear beat us.”
But in the end, despite winning two sets in a row to force a deciding fifth set, it just wasn’t enough. Damascus won the first six points of the fifth set en route to a five-set, 25-15, 25-22, 21-25, 22-25, 15-13 victory over River Hill at University of Maryland's Ritchie Coliseum to advance to the state finals match on Friday.
“I’m very proud of them. I’m sorry that we’re not going on and playing on Friday, in fact I think we’re all rather devastated,” Paynter said. “But they showed me what they were really made of, and to come back from a huge deficit, come back from a 6-11 deficit in the third game and lose 15-13 in the fifth set. You can’t ask more from a group of young women than I have right now.”
The Hawks (15-2) couldn’t get much going early, and despite tying the Hornets six different times in the first set, they never led. And, with just three kills and an ace, they were tied, 15-15, but it was then that Damascus (19-3) won the final 10 points to win the set, 25-15.
Paynter said part of the struggles were because her team was the first team to play in the playoffs, and they didn’t have an opportunity to get used to the atmosphere.
“It’s hard not being able to watch another team play, and that was my biggest concern, that I had a group of girls that had never been here before,” she said. “We didn’t have an opportunity to feel out the court.”
River Hill found itself trailing again early in the second set, 3-0, but bounced back to tie it at 6-6 before Damascus won six straight points to take a 12-6 lead. The Hawks, though, came right back and won the next nine points to make it a 15-12 advantage and battled the Hornets until the end of the set.
With a 22-21 lead, River Hill let it slip away, and Damascus won the final four points to take a commanding two set lead.
Trailing 11-6 in the third set is when Paynter noticed the fear. It was clear from that point on that the Hawks team that won 15 matches in the season was back.
They eventually tied it at 12-12, and then at 15-15 for the third straight set, it was River Hill that stormed away with it. Isabel Paci hammered down two kills and an ace and the Hawks got back into the match, winning the set, 25-21.
The fourth set saw River Hill finally take command as it led all but one point throughout. Paci and Emily Luo combined for six kills in the stanza, and it held off a late Damascus rally that tied it at 22-22. Sammy Lala had a kill and Hannah Siaurusaitis’ block confirmed that the match was headed to a deciding fifth set.
All season, the Hawks prided themselves on being the first to five points, 10 points and 15 points. In the fifth set, nothing went right early, as the Hornets jumped out to a 6-0 lead.
“I don’t think it was too big of a hill to climb,” Siaurusaituis said. “I think we climbed that hill and we just needed to push ourselves a tiny bit more to just finish that game. We worked our hardest. I believe in this team and I love this team.”
Slowly River Hill pushed its way back into it, and won six of eight points to the deficit to 10-11. The Hawks, though, just couldn’t quite pull off another run of points, as the two teams traded points the rest of the way, resulting in Damascus winning the set, 15-13.
While River Hill fell short, it has come a long way since winning just five county matches a season ago.
“Besides Emily (Luo), it’s the same exact girls this year who are the starters,” Lala said. “And honestly, we felt last year what it felt like to lose, and we did not want to feel like that again. We fought every single game because we wanted to win so badly. We didn’t want to feel like that, and we didn’t feel like that this season really until now. We fought this whole time.”
Paci led the Hawks with 15 kills, while Luo finished with 11. Lala added nine, and Siaurusaitis tallied five to go with three blocks.
“Amazing season. I am so proud of everything that we have gotten through,” Siaurusaitis said. “We came from a very hard season last year and we really pushed ourselves into this season and we did amazing.”
Damascus will play the winner of Towson/Northern-Calvert in the state finals.
Damascus (19-3) def. River Hill (15-2), 3-2 (25-15, 25-22, 21-25, 22-25, 15-13)