There were tears. Players hugged their parents. Rivals took pictures together.

One day, the volleyball players from River Hill and Centennial high schools will be a parent. Some may become coaches. No matter what road they end up on, they will always be connected by Friday.

No. 1 Centennial defeated No. 3 River Hill in an epic five set battle, 17-25, 25-17, 22-25, 25-23 and 25-23, for the Class 3A East Region championship. The Eagles (21-2 overall) will play Blake from Montgomery County Monday in a state semifinal contest at the University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum.

The 12 state tournament games next week in College Park will have a difficult time matching what took place at the Ellicott City school Friday. It was a volleyball opera played out over nearly two hours in front a capacity audience.

“I’ve been coaching here for 16 years and I’ve never seen that much spirit in any athletic event than what we saw,” said Eagles coach Larry Schofield. “It was all positive.”

“They didn’t quit, and all I ask them to do is not stop,” said River Hill coach Lynn Paynter. “That first match we did. We rested on our laurels a little bit and sort of stopped pushing.”

In the teams’ first meeting in Clarksville back in September, Centennial clawed its way back from several deficits to win in four sets to claim the consensus No. 1 ranking in the area. The Hawks won a couple of days later for the Gator Invitational crown, but volleyball followers knew the teams had one final dance for a spot at the University of Maryland.

It was a heck of spin Friday.  After splitting the first two sets, River Hill raced to 12-3 advantage en route to victory in the third set.

The teams went back and forth in the fourth set before back-to-back winners by Samatha Brostrom pushed Centennial to a 24-22 advantage. The Hawks got it to 24-23 before a shot landed out, giving the Eagles win and forcing a decisive fifth set.

“The main thing we had to do was just relax,” said Centennial senior hitter Liz Brown. “We started to get ahead of ourselves and we tend to do that sometimes. We know we have the talent, we just had to be there mentally and take care of the ball.”

The Eagles appeared to be in control at 10-5 in the fifth, but River Hill fought back to tie at 12 after a block kill by Carolyn Kleinberger.  A kill block by Brostrom and Jamie Fabling put Centennial on the verge at 14-12.

Once again, River Hill wasn’t ready to relinquish its region crown from last fall.  The Clarksville school won the next two points, the latter a clean kill by Megan Rosburg, to force deuce.

The teams went to deuce nine more times before Kate Todorovich’s kill gave Centennial the advantage at 24-23. When River Hill couldn’t cleanly return Carly Simenauer’s serve, the Eagles were finally able to erase the memory of last season’s region finals lost to River Hill.

“I was thinking ‘we have to win this,’” said Brostrom. “This is our home and we deserve it.”

“We were all dying at the end but that meant we left it all out on the court,” said Brown.

Brostrom finished with 20 kills and 13 digs with Brown added 17 as well as 13 digs. Senior hitter Sarah Okey had a game-high 28 kills for River Hill with Rosburg posting 14 kills and 14 digs.

“This is the best match I’ve ever played in,” said Okey. “It just kept going back and forth. It hurts right now because that was our last chance.”

All season Schofield said “the road goes through River Hill.” That can be said no longer as the Eagles are again on the path to another state title.

 “I’ve challenged them to reach higher,” said Schofield. “We’ve been to counties, we’ve won districts. One ring higher was regionals, they reach that. Now, we have to reach one more. We’ve been here before.”