Atholton volleyball sweeps Bel Air, wins second 3A state title in three years

Tim Schwartz
Contact ReporterHoward County Times sports

Leading 24-15 in the third and final set of its perfect season, Atholton coach Larry Schofield called a timeout. They huddled together and smiled and laughed, soaking in the last moments of a season that will be remembered for years to come.

“We had 38 seconds left in the timeout and I said, ‘Enjoy this because you’re about to win a state championship,’” Schofield said. “It doesn’t really get any better than that.”

Sophomore outside hitter Ryan Rorls pounded down a kill on the next point to give the No. 1 Raiders a 25-16, 25-16, 25-15 straight-set victory over Bel Air in the 3A state championship game Tuesday night at University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum to win their second state title in three years and finish the season a perfect 19-0.

“This is just so crazy. I can’t believe it,” said senior captain and outside hitter Lisa Zoch. “It doesn’t seem real.”

The 3-0 win was their 17th of the season, as they capped the year winning 57 of the 60 sets they played in one of the toughest counties in the state, but nothing they accomplished came as a surprise to anybody on the team.

On the lock screen of senior libero Elise Park’s iPhone is a conversation she had with Zoch on Sept. 14.

“It said we were bringing this team to the state championships and winning it all,” Park said. “And I kept that, and we did it.”

Schofield, who took over as head coach this fall after previously being an assistant, never shied away from talking about the lofty expectations, either. Whether it was during summer workouts or early-season practices, winning the state sixth state title in team history was always the hope and discussed at length.

“We kept talking about, where are we going to be on the 20th of November? I tell them, write it on the ceiling, write it on the mirror in lipstick or something so that 20th of November is always something in your view,” said Schofield, who also led Centennial to an undefeated season in 2008 and became the first Howard County volleyball coach to win state titles at two different schools. “It’s a dream until you write it down. Once you write it down, it becomes a goal and something tangible.”

The way Atholton handled the Bobcats should also come as no surprise. Zoch, the 2017 Howard County Player of the Year, and Rorls led the offense on the biggest stage of the season with 14 and nine kills, respectively, while Park dug everything on serve receive and commanded one of the best defenses Howard County has seen in years.

Most importantly, though, they did it their way: having more fun than everyone else. Like their semifinal victory over Westminster, they danced between sets instead of talking strategy because energy is simply all they need to dominate.

“The communication and energy was there, and for our team that’s such a big aspect,” Zoch said. “We feed off of each other’s energy and positivity, and everyone really brought that tonight.”

Park had a different but more colorful analogy to describe their supremacy.

“I feel like we were like a lawnmower. We just plowed through them,” she said. “Nothing stopped us. Everything they would do we would adjust. We just focused on our side and we did our job.”

The Raiders got out of the gates strong and never trailed in the opening set. An 11-3 run that featured five kills, two aces and two blocks increased their lead from 4-3 to 14-6, and they never looked back. Zoch finished the frame with five kills, including several from the back row, which was something Bel Air rarely saw this season and created problems.

But Bobcats coach Elizabeth McCourt thought the Raiders defense and serve receive was Atholton’s biggest strength on Tuesday, and they set the tone early.

“They had really strong defense. They picked up everything we were putting over,” she said. “They were very quick, and that gave us some trouble tonight.”

In the second set, another wave caused the Bobcats to crumble. A 13-2 run during which four different players had kills gave the Raiders a 14-8 advantage, and they followed that up by winning six of the final seven points to close the stanza.

“Tonight, we had a sense or urgency to win because we were very confident in ourselves,” Zoch said. “... We knew we had prepared this whole season and we had given ourselves the tools, and if we would use them we would be successful. So I think it was more pushing ourselves and pushing our teammates today to make everything come together.”

Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” blared through the gym speakers again after that frame, and once again Atholton practiced their best — or worst — dance moves, but never took away the team’s focus. Four kills and an ace gave the Raiders an early 6-1 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish, and Zoch hammered a kill to give them match point. That’s when Schofield called the timeout.

Afterwards, Park reflected on a career that includes three regional championships and two county and state titles to go with a record of 50-6 over the last three years. In 11 county matches this season, the Raiders won 33 sets and lost none, sweeping every opponent with relative ease.

But the most memorable part wasn’t necessarily those dominant victories. It all was putting Atholton volleyball back on the map after years of sitting near the bottom of the county standings.

“I think Atholton volleyball is really something that is to be known now,” Park said. “All of our students at school, they say we’re a volleyball school, why has been volleyball been good every year we’ve been here? ... I don’t know, I just think the program has become something amazing that I’ll remember for a long time.”

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