COLLEGE PARK – The Damascus (16-3) varsity volleyball team returned to the 3A state championship game Saturday for the second straight year and, for the second year in a row, the Swarmin’ Hornets hit a wall.
Damascus fans came out in droves to the Ritchie Coliseum at the University of Maryland to cheer on a team that had lost only two games all season.
Yet, the Hornets fell to Howard County’s Atholton (20-5) after winning the first set and then dropping three straight: 25-17, 21-25, 18-25, 22-25.
With the win, the Raiders earn Howard County’s first state title in any sport in eight years. Before Saturday, Atholton hadn’t won a volleyball championship since 1989.
The thrilling matchup came down to the wire in the fourth set as players from both teams dove to the ground to keep the play alive and stop the other team from scoring.
However, Damascus Head Coach Rebecca Ronquillo said the Raiders maintained an edge over Damascus during long rallies.
“Atholton really got their wind and they just kept going with it,” she said. “We kept trying to get those rallies and we’ve kind of struggled with that, even in years past. We’ll go on long rallies and somehow we always come up short in those long rallies. [Atholton] capitalized on that.”
The Hornets came out strong in the first set and erased a four-point Atholton lead.
Damascus sophomore middle blocker Sara Gruber posted her best performance of the evening in the first set when she slammed four kills to give the Hornets a one game advantage.
Every time the Raiders tried to pull away, the tenacious and scrappy Hornets would answer back.
Damascus senior outside hitter Olivia Fagan earned three of her eleven total kills in the second set when she felt her team start to falter.
“[Atholton] picked it up in the second set and that’s when we started falling a little bit,” she said. “We kept our energy up and it was really cool to see everyone pull together.”
Atholton senior outside hitter and Millersville commit Samantha Miller played a key role in helping her teammates keep momentum on their side.
Miller led all scorers with 18 kills and slammed the ball so emphatically Raiders fans in attendance screamed their approval.
Hornets senior outside hitter Isabel Nelligan, who led her team with 15 kills, said this year’s state championship loss did not sting as much as last year’s unsuccessful campaign.
“I feel a lot better after this season than I did last season,” she said. “We really left it all out on the court this season and I’m happy that this is how I went out.”
Raiders Head Coach Robert Moy said the Hornets played tougher in the postseason than they did during the regular season.
“We saw Damascus at the tournament in Westminster and they weren’t anywhere close to being this scrappy,” he said. “When we saw them during the playoffs they had gotten a lot better. It made it a lot tougher for us to figure things out.”