After Maryvale Prep won every set last season en route to the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference volleyball championship, coach Missy Little revved up her schedule with a handful of top public schools teams.
Shooting to win every set again was unrealistic, but getting better by playing the best was not. Little was willing to risk a few losses to strengthen her team for another title run.
Sunday night, the No. 7 Lions proved she was right, avenging their only conference loss of the season with a 26-24, 23-25, 25-16, 25-22 victory over No. 6 Archbishop Spalding in the A Conference final at Stevenson University in Owings Mills.
“As I kept telling them all season, it just shows how much character you have to not back down to competition. Win or lose it’s going to make you a better player and it will only prepare you for the future…' I’m thrilled for all of them,” Little said.
The Lions (11-4) dropped matches to No. 1 Arundel, No. 3 Reservoir and then-No. 12 Severna Park, but they upset then No. 4 Broadneck and the players loved the additional high-level competition.
“That really helped us get better throughout the season,” said senior libero Athena Savick.” I think that’s what helped us get where we are now. If it was a loss, it was a learning experience. We definitely got better from those hits and serves and all those other things from those great teams.”
Sunday night, the Lions did everything well. Their accurate passing on serve-receive set up a powerhouse attack, especially from senior outside hitter Libby Potter with 24 kills and junior middle/outside hitter Samantha Elliott with 14. Setter Kaitlyn Hall had 40 assists.
The Lions rallied from 10 points down and fought off set point to win the first set. Even when they lost the second, their energy never dipped. They held off a ferocious rally in the fourth set sparked by Spalding senior middle hitter Mariah Sanabia, who finished with 14 kills and five blocks, before Elliott pounded out championship point.
“It’s awesome. It was tears right away,” Savick said. “I was so happy that we won that game to end my career. I feel like our serve-receive and just everything was on — passing was there, the hitting was there — and I think tonight we were prepared for it and ready to show up and play.”
Potter, who will play at Mary Washington next year, said the Lions changed their plan of attack after losing to Spalding in three sets during the regular season.
“Our approach to this game was a lot different than the last time when they completely beat us.” said Potter. “We focused on hitting around the block. They had huge blockers, so thank you to our coaches for having a different approach and for us just for having a different mindset going in.”
Sanabia gave the Lions fits in the final game, winning all but one Spalding point in a 7-2 run that closed a six-point gap to 22-21.
She had three blocks and a kill to help pull within 20-19. A dig and another kill from her brought the Cavaliers within one. When Sanabia rotated out, the Lions had little trouble finishing off the match.
Sophomore right side hitter Emily Kuczynski blocked an overpass and Elliott had two kills, including one on match point.
Spalding coach Corby Lawrence said it wasn’t only the stellar hitting of Potter and Elliott that made a big difference in the match.
“Maryvale took advantage of their second chances and we did not,” he said. “Every time they got a ball up for a second chance, they ... found the floor on the other side. Any time we had an opportunity — free ball, overpass, something that made it good for a first touch — we didn’t take advantage of it. They’re such a good team, you can’t leave them in it too long.”
In the rematch of last year’s title game, the Cavaliers (10-3) started exactly the way they wanted, running up an 11-1 lead and extending it to 19-9. After they gave the Lions a point with a service error, Savick had a terrific dig that led to a powerful kill by Potter. Elliott then drilled the ball down the line to pull within 19-12.
Although the Lions still had a long way to go, the momentum shifted at that point. The Lions remained loose while the Cavaliers seemed to grow more tense.
The Cavaliers stayed in the lead and reached set point on a Lions service error, but two Spalding errors tied the set at 24. An Elliott kill brought up set point and a Kuczynski block sealed the 26-24 win.
“I think the first set just basically said it all,” Little said. “It showed their grit and determination. We were losing and they got themselves together and they showed what they’re really made of.”
The second set was tied 12 times before Spalding broke a 23-23 stalemate with an ace from Carina Witt and a kill from senior outside hitter Addison Collins, who finished with 10 kills.
The loss didn’t seem to matter much to the Lions, who remained relaxed throughout the match. They built a 16-6 lead in the third set and the Cavaliers could not get closer than within four points.
“We just came out and we were ready,” Elliott said. “We were a little bit flat at the beginning of the first set and we got down, but we fought and we came back. Our team, we worked so well together tonight and I think that made a big difference.”