Atholton senior outside hitter Lisa Zoch described last year’s run to the county title as a bumpy ride. The Raiders went a perfect 11-0 in league play in 2017 to win their first county title since 1988, but there were lapses and close calls along the way, like a tight five-setter against Howard and dropped sets to Glenelg, Long Reach and Centennial.
There have no such minor failures this fall, as Atholton has set a standard of excellence that continued into its home match against the Eagles on Tuesday night.
The Raiders won in straight sets — 25-23, 25-13, 25-20 — to improve to 10-0 in county play and 13-0 overall and clinch at least a share of their second straight league title, but the manner in which they have dominated county opponents has become a rallying call for the players. They have been perfect in the league so far by winning each of their 10 county matches, 3-0. That’s 30 set victories in 30 played.
“That was our new goal this year,” said Zoch, who added that coach Larry Schofield brought up the potential for a perfect league slate at a practice after the Raiders’ win against Glenelg on Oct. 9. “We always had to keep pushing ourselves. Both county championships are great, but I think this year is just different because we have that 3-0 set thing, too.”
Schofield, who said before the season the team’s goals were to win the “triple crown” — county, region and state titles — said the Raiders simply “refuse to lose.”
“It was never a big team goal to go undefeated set-wise, but I think it was their subconscious goals,” he added. “We don’t want to lose, and they haven’t. ... But we’ve got one more in county and then everybody is 0-0 for the playoffs.”
The Raiders won in three sets, but two of them didn’t come easy. Centennial (8-2, 8-5) rallied from a 14-7 deficit to eventually tie the opening stanza at 19, 20 and 21, but Atholton got consecutive kills from Channelle Smith, Jessica Humphies and Zoch to propel it to a 25-23 victory.
The second set was no contest. Atholton jumped out to a 10-2 lead and cruised to a 25-13 win. The Raiders got 19 points via kill, block or ace in the stanza, including five kills and a block from Zoch, the 2017 Howard County Player of the Year who led the team with 14 kills on the night.
“The second set just shows how good Atholton can be if you’re not playing well,” said Centennial coach Michael Bossom. “Good teams make you pay if you’re not playing well, and that’s what they did. I thought in games one and three we did the things that we’re good at, and game two we didn’t.”
The Eagles regained their focus in the third set and once again pushed Atholton to the finish. They took their only two-point advantage of the night, 11-9, and the score was tied down the stretch at 17, 18 and 20.
Once again, however, the Raiders finished with a flurry. They won the final five points and pulled away thanks to four straight kills, including two from Ryan Rorls. The final point summed up the evening, as it looked like Centennial was going to get an easy point only to see Rorls scoop the ball inches from the floor and keep the point alive. The Raiders won it seconds later.
“We had some digs that we normally don’t get to,” Schofield said. “That last point that Ryan got to ... that was important, just that one touch. That’s what I keep telling them: give me one more touch, that’s it.”
Schofield, in his first-year as the head coach of the Raiders, said he knew his team’s offense would excel this year because of their depth and ability to score from anywhere. “The weapons I have here, I have more than normal,” he said. But the defense, led by senior libero Elise Park, has been just as stellar.
“I always knew I had the stallions in there, but my defense — the serve receive from Elise Park was on target, it really was,” Schofield said. “... Our serve receive was probably the best it’s been.”
Smith and Rorls had seven kills apiece, and Wande Sogbesan had three kills and three blocks for Atholton, which can win the league title outright with a win over Oakland Mills on Thursday.
Jackie Sterenberg, who had 10 kills, and Sarah Allen, who had five kills, three aces and 20 digs, led the Eagles.