Lions capture an “emotional” victory in five sets

by Katherine Dunn

Howard’s Corinne Chau kept coming back to the same word to describe Tuesday night’s marathon five-set victory over River Hill — “emotional.”

Howard setter Ayanna Pharoah dished out 32 assists in the Lion’s victory over River Hill. The senior also had seven aces and six kills.

In a showdown of Howard County’s only undefeated volleyball teams, the No. 4 Lions secured sole possession of first place with their 25-19, 20-25, 25-21, 21-25, 15-12 win.

The visiting Lions (9-0) not only had to overcome No. 5 River Hill’s rally to finish off the fourth set, but they also had to overcome the loss of their best hitter, junior Kelenna Onukwugha, who left the match with a knee injury after landing awkwardly late in the fourth set.

“Very, very emotional definitely,” Chau said. “There were just so many ups and downs on and off the court. We just needed to keep pushing and I think we just pulled through til the end. We stayed strong.”

The Lions, who had lost just one set all season, aimed to finish the match in four sets and rallied to tie the fourth game at 20 with five straight points. But a couple of Lions errors gave the Hawks a 22-20 lead before Onukwugha, who finished with nine kills, hurt her left knee.

The momentum stayed with the Hawks, who got a couple of points on Howard hitting errors and another on a block by middle hitter Paula Elguera to finish off the set.

River Hill middle blocker Shreeni Chikyala had a match-high 16 kills and forced Howard to adjust to her powerful hits and her block.

With the match on the line however, the Lions found plenty of motivation in coming together for their injured teammate.

“Other than just keeping our undefeated [record], we felt we needed to win for her…” Chau said. “We’re not going to let her fall down and watch us fall to the ground just because she fell. We needed to win for her.”

The final set featured five ties, but in a game of momentum swings, the Lions orchestrated the final surge.

Christina Liu’s kill gave the Hawks a 12-11 lead before the Lions reeled off the final four points. Two Hawks hitting errors, a Chau kill and a tandem block by Tyller Williams and Ayanna Pharoah gave Howard the final run.

In addition to going 9-0 in the county, the Lions won the Oakdale Tournament without losing a set, beating Oakdale in the semifinals and Boonsboro in the final.

“This team is full of fight. They don’t give up,” Howard coach Allison McCoy said. “We’ve had high pressure situations from early in the season and that taught us we can do it, so we know we can push back and I’m proud of them. That’s something we’ll take with us to playoffs.”

One of the keys to Howard’s victory was adjusting to the power and presence of Hawks senior middle hitter Shreeni Chikyala, who finished with a match-high 16 kills.

Her ability to pound the ball off the quick set overwhelmed the Lions at several points and her blocking forced the Lions to adjust their hitting, at times, forcing errors as they tried to hit around her.

Chikyala had three straight kills and a block on Okunwugha as the Hawks finished off the second set and in the third, she helped the Hawks take an 18-14 lead before Howard rallied to win it.

“The difference between her and other middles we’ve seen anywhere is she’s just a lot faster than a lot of the other middles,” Chau said, “so we just had to adjust to the speed. Once we got that down, we were able to dig and get up the ball.”

Darien Garner led the Lions with 10 kills while Chau, who had three in the fifth set, finished with nine. Senior setter Pharoah dished out 32 assists and had seven aces. Libero Briana May had 25 digs while Chau had 23.

“I think we could play them multiple times and you would see the same great volleyball that we saw tonight,” McCoy said. “It just came down to they have a good defense and it was hard for us to find a spot to put the ball away and they played a great game too.”

River Hill coach Lynn Paynter said it was the best match the Hawks (8-1) had played this season, they just didn’t get off to the fast start they needed in the final set.

“We just started slow and once you start slow, it’s hard to pick up,” Paynter said. “We tied the score many times, but you’re always feeling that you have to play catchup when you start out. By the time it’s 4-1, you feel like you’re treading water and mentally, you start doing things a little safer, but I thought in that last third of the game the girls played very well…”

Grace Leska had 10 kills for the Hawks (8-1) while Christina Lui and Abby Chicorelli had nine each. Setter Xu had 25 assists and four aces.

Above: Howard’s Sanaya Srivastava finishes off a long rally in the No. 4 Lions’ 3-2 win over Howard County rival and No. 5 River Hill. The Lions are the only unbeaten team remaining in the county.