Atholton took a great deal of pride in its streak of 37 consecutive sets won and 16 of its 17 victories coming in straight-set sweeps. It was a sign of dominance, that there are no letdowns.
But that special streak came to a sudden end in a 3A state semifinal game at the hands of a powerful Westminster team at University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum on Wednesday night when the Owls won the first set, 26-24.
Atholton never trembled and won the second set to tie the match, and the reaction on the Raiders’ bench afterwards calmed the nerves of everyone — players, coaches and fans alike.
Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” blared through the gym speakers, and while Westminster huddled and discussed strategy, Atholton danced. Literally.
“They were loose, they were focused,” said Raiders coach Larry Schofield. “They weren’t worrying about that loss because they knew they could come back and they knew what their abilities are.”
Their ability shined bright after losing the opening set, as Atholton raised its game and rallied past Westminster to win in four sets, 24-26, 25-21, 25-20, 25-21, and advance to the state championship game for the sixth time and first since winning the 3A title in 2016.
The undefeated No. 1 Raiders (18-0) will face Bel Air or Huntingtown Tuesday night for the title.
No. 3 Westminster (16-2), in its third trip to the state final four since 2014, fell in the semifinal round for the second time and lost its first match since Sept. 24. The returning 3A state finalist Owls also dominated throughout the regular and postseason having lost just four sets overall before Wednesday, but they weren’t able to match Atholton despite a quick start.
Senior outside hitter Lisa Zoch, the 2017 Howard County Player of the Year, led the Atholton with 13 kills, a block and an ace, while junior middle blocker Chanelle Smith sparked the defense with six blocks to go with eight kills.
Junior outside hitter Jilienne Widener, the 2017 Carroll County Player of the Year, had a match-high 25 kills, including six in the first set, which the Owls controlled most of the way but never led by more than three. Tied at 24, Sabina Rinda and Zoe Costly closed out the frame with back-to-back kills.
“It was awesome to get that first swing in our direction and I think it kind of set the tone for the rest of the match,” said Owls said Ed Benish. “I think, you know, a couple points here to there it could’ve gone the other way.”
Atholton simply never wavered, and more importantly the set streak that just ended never crossed their minds.
“We talk about bend not break,” Schofield said. “OK, so they limbo a little bit, but they snap right back.”
Added senior libero Elise Park: “We have a lot of trust in each other, too. We know that we’re capable of coming back with ease.”
Smith set the tone in the second set with two blocks in the first four points, and the Raiders took an 8-7 lead and never relinquished it. Park talked consistently with Schofield throughout the stanza about the defensive adjustment made, which slowed Widener just enough after another hot start in the frame.
“Block cross instead of line,” she said. “We wanted to block line, that was the plan because we though Jilienne would want to swing line a lot and we wanted to protect our setters, but it ended up being that we needed to protect cross.”
Schofield said altering the game plan wasn’t necessarily to slow down Widener as much as it was to slow down her teammates.
“We knew she was going to get her kills,” he said. “You’re not going to stop a player of that caliber anywhere. Slow her down and hopefully stop their other players.”
They boogied through the break before Widener carried Westminster to another quick start in the third set with four kills and an ace to take an early 7-3 lead. But two kills an ace from Zoch helped the Raiders crawl back into it and eventually take a 9-8 lead. Like the second set, they never trailed from that point on, and like the second set, Zoch ended it with a kill.
“We knew once we had a lead in a set, even it was 10-8, we knew we could go all the way,” Park said.
Atholton led the majority of the fourth set as well, as the Owls’ only advantage in the frame was at 14-13. The Raiders quickly reclaimed the lead two points later and slowly added to it. A block by Zoch made it 20-17 and forced a Westminster timeout, and this time she closed out the set and match with her only ace.
The Raiders are now one victory away from a perfect season and winning the “triple crown” — county, region and state titles — which was set as the goal before the season. Schofield said he’s “had confidence from the beginning” that they would accomplish it.
“They set that goal for the ‘triple crown’ and they’ve got two of them right now,” he said. “The third one is definitely in our headlights.”