No. 7 Bel Air rallies from 2-0 deficit, stuns Huntingtown for 3A state volleyball final berth; No. 1 Atholton surges past Westminster (VIDEO HERE!)


by Pat O’Malley and Tom Hayden

During Bel Air High’s press conference following Wednesday’s Class 3A state volleyball semifinal, Bobcats coach Elizabeth McCourt talked about the unusual circumstances that led her to the position. Olivia Simon talked about how bad the team was a couple of years ago.

Bel Air volleyball has indeed come a long way. Now, the No. 7 Bobcats are a win away from becoming state champions.

Thanks to an epic rally, Bel Air defeated southern Maryland’s Huntingtown in five sets at the University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum. The Bobcats will take on No. 1 Atholton for the state title, Tuesday in College Park.

In a matchup of area heavyweights, the Raiders took down fifth-ranked Westminster in the first 3A state final four match.

One thing is certain – the 2018 Atholton volleyball team is as loose and cool as any high school team you will ever see as they advanced to the 3A final with a four-set victory.

The undefeated Raiders (18-0) will return to College Park Tuesday in search of their second title in three seasons. Atholton won its third state crown in 2016 under coach Robert Moy, who stepped down after last season to coach the junior varsity and assistant Larry Schofield was promoted.

Westminster (17-2) has never won a state volleyball title and played in its first final last season. The matchup was delayed 30 minutes due to Atholton bus being tied up in traffic.

The Raiders dropped the first set to the Carroll County power Owls, 26-24. It was the Howard County champ first dropped set in nearly two months.

No sweat for those happy-go-lucky Raiders. The Columbia school won the final three sets, 25-21, 25-20 and 25-21.

Following the second set win, the Raiders suddenly erupted into a dance, singing and swinging their hips to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”

The reaction to the crowd favorite song is something the Raiders have done before this season on their trek to the triple crown for them – Howard County, 3A East Region and 3A state titles.

That was our goal coming into this season, winning the triple crown,” said Schofield, who would be the first Howard County volleyball coach to win state titles at two schools. Schofield was an assistant to Mike Bossom while the latter was winning a Maryland-record 8 state championships at Centennial and later took the reins when Bossom moved on and led the Eagles to a state title in 2008.

“These girls are loose, but focused,” he added. “They weren’t worried about that loss (first set) because they knew they could come back. They know what their abilities are.”

The abilities of several Raiders really showed in the match, mainly those of 6-foot senior Lisa Zoch, 6-foot-2 junior Chanelle Smith and senior setters Hannah Duncan and Sabrina  Lagomarsino, who combined for 30 assists with Duncan leading with 17,  not to mention senior libero Elise Park.

Park shielded at least a couple wicked shots from Westminster’s 6-foot senior outside hitter Jillene Widener who smashed a match-high 25  kills including a half dozen in the  first set victory and 10 in the last set trying to keep her Owls alive.

Zoch, who was a key player on the Raiders’ 2016 state championship squad, led the Raiders in kills with 12 kills and had an ace while Smith’s presence at the net was intimidating at times as the lanky, athletic junior posted 9 kills and 7 blocks. Smith had a few emphatic kills that were unstoppable in the final set and several point-blank blocks on rockets fired by Widener, who’s a teammate of Smith’s on the Metro VBC of D.C. travel club.

Widener, the two-time reigning Carroll County Player of the Year, has 980 career kills, including the 25 against Atholton, and is considering Brown University or Dartmouth for the next level. She had a problem serving throughout the contest Wednesday, but it did not effect her launching rockets for kills.

With senior setter Emily Bartlett, who had over 1,500 career assists and will play at Lebanon Valley College, feeding her, Widener put the Owls up by 23-22 in the first set that had 10 ties, the last at 24. Sophomore hitter Sabina Rinda, who had 7 kills, got her first two for the 24th and 25th points in set one while Zoe Costley closed it 26-24.

Zoch had five of her 12 kills in the second set, the last pair for the last two points of the 25-21 triumph. The Raiders took the next two sets after hearing “Sweet Caroline,” but Westminster didn’t make it easy.

I’m extremely proud of our girls for they never gave up,” said Westminster sixth-year coach Ed Benish. “They did exactly what our game plan was. Atholton was definitely the best team we played all year in regular season.”

Lengthy leads were non-existent throughout the match as Westminster was up to the task and gave the Raiders a run for their money. The biggest lead held by Atholton in the last two wins was 6 at 24-18 in the third set and by 5 (8-3) in the last set.

Atholton’s depth shined in the match and the Raiders put the exclamation point on “team” in the final set as junior Jessica Humphries fired a kill for the 23rd point and senior Wande Sogbesan unloaded  a kill for the 24th point and Zoch brought down the curtain with an ace for a 25-21 victory.

The first set was not as important once we got the lead,” said Park. “We focused on our energy.”

 Yes, it was Sweet Caroline for Atholton, “ba-ba-ba…..” once again.

It’s just as sweet for Bel Air (17-2), which ended three decades of state semifinal failures with a comeback for the ages.

“We just had to flip the switch,” said McCourt. “Our serve-receives and our serves were not good the first two sets. But once we started passing the ball and getting it to our setter, Olivia Simon, she was able to make some great decisions. We played with a lot more confidence those last three sets. I’m proud of what the girls were able to do tonight. Even when they were down two games to none, they never had any doubt they could come back.”

The Bobcats had been burned on serve-receive errors in the first two sets and compounded it with service errors, but they were able to rebound from those miscues and take the next three sets in dramatic fashion.

Huntingtown (16-3) won the first two sets (25-16 and 25-22) courtesy of prolonged runs from reserve Chloe Marlette and ample service errors by the Bobcats, but over the last three sets Bel Air executed superbly in crucial moments, especially with libero Radhika Patel passing the ball to Simon whose sets for outside hitters Megan Hoy, Madison Reagan and Brooke Myers and middle hitter McKenna Reiswig resulted in crucial points.

Huntingtown led 11-8 late in the fifth set and appeared on the verge of derailing the Bobcats’ rally until Simon lofted a set for Erin Kenney for a crucial sideout point. The Bobcats got the last two points when Simon set Myers for one kill then with Julianna Harden serving Simon lofted a set for Hoy that the Bobcats outside hitter blistered off Huntingtown libero Katlynne Palensky for match point.

Regan, a sophomore finished with 15 kills and 8 digs, and senior Megan Hoy added 9 kills and 4 aces. Simon (2 aces, 21 assists, 9 digs, 3 blocks), Myers (8 kills, 2 blocks), senior Erin Kenney (7 kills, 3 blocks), Reiswig (7 kills, 3 blocks), Patel (1 ace, 16 digs, 6 assists), junior Jay Harden (1 ace, 11 digs) and junior Sarah Markland (11 assists, 13 digs) also contributed.

It was the first victory in the state semifinals for Bel Air after losses in 1988, 1989, 1999, 2012 and 2013.

McCourt, who got the Bobcats’ job a couple of days before start of practice a couple of seasons ago, said playing perennial state final four squads Perryville and Rising Sun in the UCBAC Chesapeake helped them in Wednesday. Bel Air won the Susquehanna title last fall before moving to the Chesapeake this season.

“When I first started playing volleyball, I wasn’t very good,” Simon said. “But now I love the sport. I love playing and I love practicing. This team has just continued to get better each year and this is definitely our best year together.”

Pictured above: Bel Air’s Megan Hoy (left) and Olivia Simon (#11) thrust their arms in the air in celebration after securing match point in the Bobcats’ comeback win over Huntingtown in the Class 3A state volleyball semifinals at the University of Maryland.

CLASS 3A VOLLEYBALL STATE SEMIFINALS

AT UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND

NO. 7 BEL AIR 3, HUNTINGTOWN 2
16-25, 22-25, 25-17, 27-25, 15-13

NO. 1 ATHOLTON, NO. 5 WESTMINSTER 1
24-26, 25-21, 25-20, 25-21