Immediately following Glenelg’s thrilling five-set victory over rival River Hill in the 2A South region, Section I final in its home gym Wednesday afternoon, junior Lydia Stricker looked at senior captain Maddie Southern and pointed to her pulsating heartbeat in her neck. The stress of the situation the Gladiators just encountered the exhilaration of pulling through by the slimmest of margins had everyone reeling.
“She was stressing out. Everyone was stressing out. Our heartbeats, oh my god,” Southern said. “We’ve been practicing for this the whole week, our whole season. We just want to get so far and our chemistry is so strong, and I think that’s what helped us win tonight.”
Glenelg (15-1) dominated two of the five sets and showed why it’s the No. 2 ranked team in the latest Baltimore Sun poll, but the other three stanzas were battles until the final point. None, however, were as back and forth as the fifth and deciding set, which was tied nine times, including as late as 12 apiece. A kill by junior Sarah Santiago put the Gladiators ahead for good, and their dominating defense forced back-to-back hitting errors by the Hawks (11-6) and sent Glenelg to the regional championship game for the second straight season.
The Gladiators improved to 3-0 in five-setters and won, 25-14, 22-25, 25-10, 21-25, 15-12. They will face Patuxent, which beat last year’s regional champion La Plata in the Section II final, at home Friday night.
“Our fifth sets this year have been pretty much to the point that if we start off well and we maintain a little bit of a lead or cushion, the girls settle down and don’t panic,” Glenelg coach Jason Monjes said. “Our speech to them was that they’ve got to leave everything out on the court. It’s a battle to 15, a race, and whoever makes the gustier plays and makes the least amount of mistakes usually wins. ... I felt like we made less mistakes than they did.”
Glenelg opened its season Sept. 6 with a four-set victory over the Hawks, who are one of the youngest teams in the league and started several freshmen on Wednesday night. During that match, Southern struggled so much with her setting in the humid gym that Monjes moved her to outside hitter. Southern said she was excited about getting another opportunity to showcase her setting ability against River Hill, and she excelled. River Hill coach Lynn Paynter credited Southern as being the biggest difference-maker on the court.
“I wanted to redeem myself so bad,” said Southern, who finished with 34 assists and 18 digs. “I’ve been practicing my setting and getting to the ball and finishing my sets. Just not stressing out about it, following the ball and staying calm for me and the team because when someone stresses out, it’s stressful for everyone.”
Said Paynter: “[Southern] did a super job. Her defense was spot on and that’s unusual for a setter. It put them more in system than we were hoping. If we went toward the setter we were hoping that would put them more out of system, but she was able to send such great passes to the middle of the court.”
Santiago had a team-high four of her 12 kills in the first set, which Glenelg won handily after closing out with a 7-0 run. But River Hill bounced back in a hurry and jumped out to a commanding 9-0 lead in the second set. The Gladiators slowly chipped away at the deficit and eventually tied the score at 18, but they tired out and the Hawks won five of the next six points and won, 25-22, to tie the match.
Glenelg mirrored what River Hill did in fourth set. It won the first six points, 12 of the first 13 and 16 of the first 19 to roll to a 2-1 set lead, but the Hawks weren’t finished yet. Down 9-8 in the fourth, they went on an 8-0 run and held onto the lead to force a winner-take-all fifth set.
The final was tied at one, two, four, five, six, seven, eight, 10 and 12, but ultimately the offensive firepower of sophomore middle blocker Gracen Alsheimer (game-high 15 kills and five blocks), junior outside hitter Maddie Myers (10 kills, 22 digs) and Santiago, as well as a gritty defensive performance, was too much for the Hawks.
“You want to be first to five, first to 10, first to 15 and you do it in increments so you’re not looking to the end too fast,” Southern said of the mindset in the fifth set. “Everyday at practice we play little games to 15 so we’re prepared for these. We stay focused, stay calm and just keep going for it. It’s stressful, but at the same time this is what we live for, this is what we look forward to.”
Senior Devin Hill led River Hill with 13 kills and a block, while freshman Shannon Hill had 13 kills, junior Shannon McCarthy had 6 kills, an ace and a block, and freshman Shreenitha Chikyala had three kills and three blocks.
Even in defeat, Paynter said she’s “tickled to death” about the team’s performance and their potential moving forward into next season.
“I’m extremely pleased with how they played tonight,” she said. “I thought they played with grit, I think they played with passion, they were determined. ... But hats off to the Gladiators. They were able to get up almost every great hit that we put down, and we’ve got some mighty hitters out there.”