No. 2 Arundel storms past Leonardtown for second straight 4A state volleyball championship; Ragler dominates (VIDEO HERE!)



by Katherine Dunn
Leonardtown High volleyball coach Steven Correll had a quick answer to what made the difference in Thursday’s state championship match against Arundel: “Their middle.”


Six-foot senior Zaria Ragler had little trouble dominating the net with nine kills, seven blocks and a block assist to lead the No. 2 Wildcats to a 3-0 sweep of Leonardtown for their second straight Class 4A state title at Harford Community College’s Aberdeen Proving Ground Federal Credit Union Arena in Bel Air.

“She was good and we tried a lot of things,” Correll said. “We kept them out of system most of the time, except when she got a ball to hit, she took care of it. That’s what great hitters do.”

Ragler’s impact on the match carried much further than her stats. She had several touches on Raiders’ hits that slowed the ball and made it easier for her teammates to dig them. Her presence also altered the Raiders’ attack.

Two years ago, Ragler played a big role in the first volleyball state championship in Wildcats history. She didn’t arrive at Arundel until her sophomore year, so she only played two seasons with the COVID interruption, but she easily carried on the Wildcats’ legacy of stellar middle blockers.

“As a sophomore, Zaria was a standout,” Arundel coach Ashley Yuscavage said. “The strengths of our offense were different, but we have predominantly been, with the exception of Brooke (Watts), a middle-based offense. Teams have a hard time defending middles. We focus on middles, so Zaria fit perfectly into that. We played around this year with her being on the outside but just kept going back to the fact that she’s so effective in the middle.”

Senior setters Abby Niles and Ashley Barnes also started on the 2019 team and they grew along with Ragler, who will play for Ohio State University next fall, to give the Wildcats (20-1 overall) a powerful attack.

“As sophomores, getting the ball to Brooke was easy,” Yuscavage said of Watts, a stellar outside hitter who graduated in 2021. “Getting the ball to the middles took a little more of a challenge and they are so ready this year, clearly, to get the ball to our middles, so the acclimation of their maturity and growth is what I think came together with Zaria’s athleticism and power to be really successful.”

Zaria Ragler (right) is hugged by her mother after Thursday’s Class 4A state volleyball championship match. Ragler, an Ohio State University recruit, had nine kills and seven blocks in her final game in an Arundel uniform as the No. 2 Wildcats won their second consecutive title.

In August, Ragler, Niles and Barnes set out to prove the Wildcats weren’t just a one-hit wonder.

They were ready for a last hurrah — and Thursday night, they earned it, 25-21, 25-19, 25-20, over Leonardtown (18-2) which knocked off the Wildcats’ archrival Broadneck in the regional final. In 2019, Arundel edged the Bruins in five sets for the state title and this season, Broadneck was the only team to beat the Wildcats, in a five-set regular-season match that Arundel avenged in the Anne Arundel County championship.

Arundel could not have started the state final much stronger. Niles’ serves fueled a 6-0 start in the first set along with two kills and a block from Ragler and kills from Barnes and junior outside hitter Audrey Owens.

Niles had five aces in the match and the Raiders would struggle with her serving. Almost every time she rotated to the line, the Wildcats scored at least a couple of points. They scored seven straight points on her first serves of the second set.

“Her getting aces and then just, like, getting the team out of system that definitely made us comfortable on the net,” Ragler said, “and it made us want to keep holding that serve because her serves really helped us in the first and second set.”

In those sets, the Wildcats couldn’t hold their early leads as Leonardtown tied the first set at 15 and 16 and took an 11-10 lead in the second. Each time, the Wildcats recovered with a run that put them ahead by at least five and the Raiders couldn’t catch up.

In the third set, the Wildcats were determined to close out the match and not get pushed to a fourth set as happened in their 3-1 state semifinal win over Montgomery County’s Sherwood Tuesday evening.

“Leonardtown is well known for being able to dig themselves out of that,” Yuscavage said, “so we knew giving them a fourth set could easily be disastrous for us, so our focal point was, ‘You are here now you must do it now.’”

Still, the Raiders jumped out to an early lead. A three-point run on an Arundel net violation, a Samantha Newton kill and a Kira Snyder ace gave them a 7-5 edge. The Wildcats made sure their momentum didn’t last long.

Arundel senior middle blocker Kiaya Walker slammed down a kill for a side out and then blocked a Newton hit. Junior Emily Liu had an ace and another serve the Raiders couldn’t handle before sophomore Payton Swinton’s kill capped a five-point run for a 10-7 lead.

The Raiders pulled within one twice, but the Wildcats’ net dominance helped them finish off the match as Ragler had three blocks for consecutive Arundel points and when she rotated out of the front row, the final two points came on blocks from Walker and Swinton.

When Swinton repelled a Newton kill for match point, Walker dropped to the floor and the Wildcats piled all over each other in celebration.

“I told Payton that was the best block,” Ragler said. “That was the best way to end a point. I wanted to run up to her and just hug her so hard… but we all just crashed into each other.”

Two years ago, Yuscavage felt more relief than anything at winning the state championship because the Wildcats had been to the final or the semifinal five times previously without taking home the trophy. 

This championship evoked different emotions.

“I felt more confident going in than we had (in the past) and I think it was just pure delight at that moment seeing their faces and seeing that dogpile,” said Yscavage, in her 15th season at Arundel.

Since falling to Broadneck Sept. 30, the Wildcats have won 14 straight matches and dropped just six sets — only one in the state playoffs.

“It feels amazing,” Barnes said. The “2019 team was such a different team, such a different dynamic… I think we all still came together with that same mindset of winning states just like in 2019, but we kind of approached it in a different way and I think that’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of and to have watched these past three years, just the team change — but the team culture never changes.”

Outside hitters Owens and Swinton finished with five kills each for the Wildcats, who were the only volleyball team to repeat as state champions this year. Niles had 14 assists and 13 digs while Barnes dished out nine assists and had five digs and three block assists. Senior libero Alannah Quick had eight digs.

The Raiders, who hadn’t reached the final four since 1986, got 11 kills from outside hitter Newton and 10 from middle hitter Shannen Litten. Setter Snyder had 23 assists. Newton and libero Emily Gaddis combined for 21 digs. All were among Leonardtown’s nine seniors who completed the best season in the history of the Southern Maryland school.

at APGFCU Arena, Harford Community College
No. 2 Arundel 3, Leonardtown 0
(25-21, 25-19, 25-20)