After dropping the first two sets in Thursday night’s Class 4A volleyball state championship, against Urbana, No. 1 Arundel rallied to even the match but the Wildcats could not sustain that energy into the fifth set.
With a 15-11 victory in the deciding set, the Hawks from Frederick County stunned the undefeated two-time defending champion Wildcats to win the first state volleyball championship in their program’s history at Harford Community College’s APG Federal Credit Union Arena in Bel Air.
The Wildcats thought Taylor Johnson had tied the final set at 12 before officials called a net violation, giving Urbana a 13-11 edge. The Hawks (17-1 overall) got a block and then an ace from Julia Gustafson to secure the title, 25-22, 25-22, 12-25, 9-25, 15-11.
“I really thought we had that last set, but after that point did get turned, my heart did definitely sink,” said Arundel junior Kiara Harmon.
The Wildcats (19-1) overwhelmed Urbana in the third and fourth set, but in the long run, that couldn’t make up for key mistakes in the first two sets.
“That third and fourth set is the team we’ve been all season,” Arundel coach Ashley Yuscavage said, “and I wish we could have been that all tonight. We didn’t do what we needed to do when we needed to do it.”
The Wildcats, who had been riding a 30-match winning streak, have a 57-3 record over the past three seasons, winning their program’s first state title in 2019 before COVID-19 canceled the 2020 championship. They’ve played in the title match six times in the past 10 seasons.
“They are an incredible program and they showed why they are tonight,” said Hawks coach Jerry Burge. “They didn’t get rattled. They came right back and took it right to us.”
The pressure of a five-set match wasn’t new to the Wildcats, who played in three others this fall. They took the No. 1 ranking from Reservoir, the 2021 Class 2A state champion, early in the season and also beat Severna Park and then Broadneck in the Anne Arundel County championship, in five.
The pressure to win another state title and finish undefeated, however, was new to the Wildcats and seemed to get to them in the first two sets. They made uncharacteristic mistakes facing a team that was similarly balanced offensively.
“I think we definitely just came out a little nervous,” said senior outside hitter Audrey Owens, who had a match-high 16 kills. “I should definitely have come out swinging more in that second set, but I definitely played it safe with a lot of free balls and that obviously didn’t pay off, but when we swung in the third and fourth set, that was what really turned the momentum around. Unfortunately, we just didn’t come out fast enough in the fifth set.”
The Wildcats had a lead in the first set before Urbana closed it out with a five-point run. They used a four point run in the second set with kills from Owens and Brooke Waters and two aces from Payton Swinton to pull within 23-22 before a service error and a Hawks block finished off the set.
In the third set, the rejuvenated Wildcats ran up a 10-1 lead on Taylor Johnson’s ace and extended it to 18-4 on Deviana Walker’s powerhouse kill. The Hawks never got closer than within 10 points.
Arundel dominated even more in the fourth set, racing out to a 14-2 lead capped by two aces from Bella Talley. Urbana cut the lead to 17-9 before two kills from Walker sparked an eight-point finishing run that included three Emily Liu aces.
Somehow that momentum could not carry over to the fifth set as Arundel managed leads of only 1-0 and 2-1.
As the Wildcats seemed on an unstoppable roll after tying the match, the Hawks just went for broke, said Urbana senior middle blocker Logan Burge, one of the coach’s three daughters on the team.
“Set five, we honestly were so fired up,” said Logan Burge, “and we all wanted to win so bad that we threw away our disappointment (about losing the fourth set), threw away any kind of negative thoughts we had and it was the last game we were ever going to play as seniors in high school and we just went out and played our absolute best.”
Unlike the past two championship teams, this Arundel team did not look to one player to make the big plays. They had a balanced attack and could rely on different players throughout each match as they did during Thursday’s rally.
“I think that everyone played a big role today even though we did not come out on top,” Liu said, “but everyone pushed especially third and fourth set, I think we did really well and we kept it consistent.”
In addition to Owens’ 16, Walker finished with 12 kills, Harmon had 10 and Payton Swinton had eight. Liu, a senior setter, had 45 assists. Payton Swinton and her sister Bailey Swinton had 13 digs each while Johnson had 10.
Claire Thompson led the Hawks with 10 kills and Charis Burge had nine. Setters Charis Burge and Kaelynn Burge had 15 assists each. Gustafson had 15 digs.
The Wildcats likely will make a run at the title again next season after graduating just five seniors — Owens, Liu, middle blocker Kennedy McDowney and defensive specialists Malia Dy and Meghan Cuza-Berry.