Liberty’s senior class put a spectacular finish Thursday night on a volleyball career that began with a 3-12 freshman season.
Not only did the No. 7 Lions defeated Frederick County’s Middletown to win the Class 2A state championship, but they also completed the season 20-0.
Outside hitters Sarah Hart and Paige Coulson combined for 40 kills in the 25-12, 19-25, 25-15, 25-19 victory at Harford Community College’s APG Federal Credit Union Arena in Bel Air.
“This feels like it’s unreal, especially being my senior season,” Hart said. “To end on a season like this is incredible, because just going from only winning three games my freshman year and building up to this, improving every single season and just finishing off with an undefeated season is wild.”
The Carroll County champions dominated opponents this fall, losing just seven sets all season. Only one team — Middletown during the regular season — pushed them to five sets. They lost only two sets in their county league and only one in winning the Oakdale Tournament.
In winning the program’s fourth state championship and their first in seven years, the Lions were the only Baltimore-area team to win a state title this fall and the only team to finish undefeated.
Second-year coach Sheri Hagen had confidence from the beginning of the season that the Lions would hoist the championship trophy this November.
“I knew we had something special this year,” Hagen said. “I knew if the girls worked as hard as they possibly could, always looking to achieve more — and we came really close last year and I knew they would want it even more this season and that they had all skills required to do it — I just had a feeling we would be here and this would be the end result today.”
The Lions relied on a team effort all season, but 6-foot-1 Hart and 5-foot-10 Coulson have been their big guns, combining for 27 kills per match.
The duo got Liberty off to a fast start against Middletown, which had never been to the state final, as they combined for 12 kills. The Knights (11-8) had a lot of trouble trying to block Hart in the first game. On many of her 22 kills in the match she snapped the ball before Middletown could set its block.
“We adjusted our block a lot,” Knights coach Jaime Pryor said. “She’s a big girl with a long reach and she can out jump us. It really comes down to our serving and keeping her out of system. That’s really what we adjusted the second set with our serving to keep her out of system and keep her from getting those great sets.”
Middletown, which was used to comebacks after starting the season 3-6, grabbed the second-set momentum after the Lions built a 13-10 lead. Three straight Liberty errors tied the set before the Knights went on to get set point from their ace Jordan Pryor, who had 17 kills in the match.
Hagen said the Lions went away from their power game in that set, giving the Knights easier passes to set up Pryor.
“In the second set, we sort of tipped a lot more than we were hitting,” Hagen said, “and I said to them, ‘For the third set, we’re going back full swing, you’ve got to hit. I don’t care if you hit it in their block, around their block, over their block, we’ll find holes and put it on the floor. Stop hitting to them. No more tipping.’”
The Lions responded in the next set with big hits to score six of their first eight points and take an 8-6 lead that quickly ballooned to 12-7 on a couple of Coulson kills and two Middletown errors. The Knights cut the lead to one before the Lions pulled away as junior setter Grace Maerten started moving the ball around.
“I definitely knew I had to make some adjustments on who I was setting and spread it out a little bit more,” Maerten said, “because they knew where I was going the majority of the time, so we had to change that up a little bit too.”
A few times after that, she caught the Knights off guard when they thought the ball was going to Hart on the outside, but Maerten set Liska on the right side. She also set middle hitter MacKenna Wright for three kills late in the set.
Middletown had an early edge in the fourth set until the Lions reeled off six straight points for a 16-13 lead. The Knights again cut it to one before Liberty scored three straight points including a kill and an ace from Coulson. The Knights seemed to deflate after they netted their next serve and Hart started a 5-2 run to close out the match.
Maerten finished with 46 assists and the Lions also had stellar defensive efforts from Coulson with 21 digs, Liska with 15 and Hart with eight while Delaney Gray, Hadley Rossbach and Erin Gossard combined for six.
Being a team that had strong connections on and off the court helped them build a dream ending to the careers of seven seniors — Hart, Coulson, Liska, Gray, Rossbach, Gossard and Sarah Zentner.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so happy right now,” Coulson said. “If you have told me my freshman year that we would be here right now, I would laugh in your face. I would not believe you… Just how much the team and how much the program has grown over the four years that we’e been here, it’s just incredible. We’ve put in so much work and we’ve just grown so much as a team and it’s really rewarding for us.”