“Have you ever seen a match better than that?” Smithsburg girls soccer coach Victor Della Mea asked me 10 minutes after the Leopards’ volleyball team fought off North Hagerstown 23-25, 25-19, 25-20, 28-30, 16-14 on Wednesday to win their 33rd straight match and the MVAL Antietam championship.
It was worth some thought. In my 12 years at The Herald-Mail, I’ve seen some spectacularly good volleyball.
The fall sports season is closing in on the midpoint of the season, and as usual, some teams have lived up to expectations, some have been better than expected and some have struggled perhaps more than expected.
With tonight’s results recorded, here’s a look at what’s happened so far, and what I think could happen going forward (save this for a couple weeks from now when, as usual, I’m proven wrong):
Monday was just another shining example of why I enjoy A) volleyball, and B) my job, so much.
There were so many storylines to talk about before Williamsport hosted Clear Spring in the biggest MVAL Antietam match of the year, and so many storylines that developed during and after the match, that I think I talked correspondent Curt Hornbecker’s ear off as we sat together watching it all unfold.
Riding a 10-match winning streak, the Blazers entered the match 10-1 overall and 4-0 in the Antietam. One more victory, over the Wildcats — in a match the Blazers have been looking forward to all season — and Clear Spring would become the outright Antietam champions.
Meanwhile, Williamsport entered 10-2 overall and 3-1 in the Antietam. The Wildcats were coming off Thursday’s stunning 25-15, 25-14, 25-22 loss at Smithsburg (8-4, 3-1) — an embarrassing result given how lopsided it was, not to take anything away from the Leopards, who will deserve the share of the Antietam title they’ll get if they defeat Boonsboro tomorrow.
Given that Clear Spring beat Smithsburg in four games (23-25, 25-21, 25-14, 25-19) on Oct. 8, the Blazers certainly entered Monday’s match as the favorite. But Williamsport was playing at home, on Parents’ Day, in front of a large home crowd, and was surely anxious to put forth a better effort than last week.
Heres’ what transpired:
GAME 1 — Clear Spring, 25-18
More than any other game Monday, this one showcased the Blazers’ depth and what they can do when they’re clicking. Of the 10 players on Clear Spring’s team, nine made significant contributions in this game:
Megan Micco 4 assists, ace
Lily Pinkham 2 kills, 2 aces, block
Hannah House 2 blocks, kill, assist
Amanda Jenkins 3 kills
Emily Pinkham 2 blocks, kill
Lindsay Lacy 2 kills, ace
Paige Shirk 2 blocks
Katie Blickenstaff 2 assists
Breanne Purdham 2 aces
The balance made up for a 9-6 deficit in errors, and contrasted sharply with Williamsport’s inability to spread the wealth around — only two Wildcats, Loganne Smith (5 assists, ace) and Cayla Broadwater (4 kills, block, ace), made a real impact in Game 1. Williamsport really struggled at times getting any kind of attack together, especially with Broadwater in the back row, and one had to wonder if the match would get completely away from them.
GAME 2 — Williamsport, 25-23
But unlike the Smithsburg match, when the snowball just kept getting bigger and bigger as it steamrolled the Wildcats, this time Williamsport was able to stem the tide and pull even. There were two major reasons why:
1. Clear Spring committed 11 errors, while Williamsport made just five.
In their second victory against Boonsboro as well as the loss against Smithsburg, Wildcats coach Emily Crabtree was clearly disappointed in the number of errors her team committed and the general sloppiness it played with. “The way to beat a really good team is not to make mistakes,” Crabtree said after Monday’s match. “There weren’t as many as we’ve had in the past.” Instead of beating themselves, the Wildcats kept the ball in play and made the Blazers beat them — and in Game 2 (and again in Game 3), the Blazers’ own errors kept them from doing it.
“I don’t want to take anything away from (Williamsport), but we hurt ourselves tonight,” Clear Spring coach Kim Malphurs said.
2. Brittany Malott gave Williamsport a legitimate second option.
This is huge. I don’t care how good a team’s best player is — and make no mistake, Broadwater is a phenomenal talent, a tall pogo stick who can rip and block balls four feet above the net — if that’s the only player a good team has to key on and worry about, it won’t be enough. And for the first four games of the match, Broadwater was as much a blocking threat (9 blocks) as an attacking threat (9 kills, including only one in both Games 2 and 3).
But Malott stepped up on the outside and gave Williamsport the second weapon it had to have to threaten Clear Spring. She had three kills, two blocks and an ace in Game 2.
“The key was just to play our game,” Malott said. “We had to not hit it out, just get it in play. We had to minimize our mistakes and make the other team make mistakes.”
GAME 3 — Williamsport, 25-19
Game 3 followed the same script as Game 2 — Clear Spring committed 11 errors to Williamsport’s four, and Malott had five kills and a block as the Wildcats put the Blazers on their heels.
“If (Brittany’s) hot, we go to her,” Crabtree said. “She wants the ball, and she was hitting the ball hard and putting it down.”
“We need (Brittany),” Broadwater said. “When I’m in the back row, we need another big hitter, and Brittany did that tonight.”
What a difference two games makes. After Game 1, the biggest question was whether Williamsport had enough depth, and could minimize its mistakes enough, to make Clear Spring have to sweat. After Game 3, the questions completely changed: Now they were, could the Blazers, who had a lot of pressure on their shoulders as they tried to win the Antietam title outright, weather the storm and have enough confidence to bounce back and force a Game 5.
GAME 4 — Clear Spring, 25-20
This was the one game where errors (12 of them) got the best of the Wildcats, whereas Clear Spring made only six. It was also the game where Amanda Jenkins — arguably Clear Spring’s best player this season and one of the best in the county — made her biggest impact, with six of her match-high 18 kills.
“Coming back from a loss, fighting back — they’re not intimidated by the Wildcat aura,” Malphurs said.
So it all came down to …
GAME 5 — Williamsport, 15-11
Right before the game started, I told Curt, “So many times in these shortened games, a team races out to a big lead and it’s basically all over.” The question was, which team would start fast?
It was the Wildcats. Smith started it with an ace, Broadwater had a block, Malott came up with a kill from the back row and Broadwater blasted a kill, forcing Malphurs to call timeout down 4-0.
It didn’t stop there. Smith hit another ace to make it 5-0, and after Emily Pinkham blocked a bad Williamsport pass to make it 5-1, the Wildcats reeled off three more points, on two more Broadwater kills and one by Amanda Hutzell, to take an 8-1 lead as the Williamsport fans rocked the house.
“They always expect me to come up big,” Broadwater said, and she certainly answered the challenge with the game on the line. “I want to get my hands on the ball, either a block or a kill. I want to put it down.”
“(The fast start) was a big rush,” Malott said. “The fans helped us a lot, and we had adrenaline on our side.”
“I told them, ‘You can smile, but you have to keep your feet on the ground. It’s not over until we get to 15,” Crabtree said. “I could tell by what they were saying in the locker room (before the match), they really, really, really wanted to beat Clear Spring. They were pumped and ready.”
Clear Spring made a valiant effort, clawing back to get within 12-10. But that was as close as the Blazers got, and Broadwater put down the last of her 13 kills on match point.
“I love to end a game, and better yet a match, on a kill like that,” Crabtree said. “That makes it all worth it.”
So, what does it all mean?
Well, the Wildcats have earned a share of the Antietam title — and that will help erase the sting of the loss to Smithsburg and send them into the playoffs next week with a more confident vibe.
“It’s a big win,” Broadwater said. “We knew Clear Spring was out to get us. We lost to Smithsburg, but we came back and I hope we’ll be even better in the playoffs.”
“For us to play five games like that and come out on the winning end, they have heart and desire and a never-say-die attitude,” Crabtree said. “That will be big in the playoffs.”
Meanwhile, the Blazers — who must be disappointed that they didn’t succeed in achieving their goal of an outright Antietam title — can let this shape their season one of two ways. They can dwell on the disappointment and let it defeat them again in the playoffs, or they can look back on the match and see how they battled back from adversity twice (in Game 4 after losing Games 2 and 3, and in Game 5 after falling behind) and realize that:
1. They have nothing to hang their heads about.
2. Their next goal — a Class 1A West title and state tournament appearance — is within their abilities.
“They’ve given me a lot of training in coming back. It was a little too much this time, but that says good things for the future,” Malphurs said. “I feel like the last two years, we were right on the edge, and this will be our breakthrough year, even though we lost tonight. A loss going into the playoffs, maybe that’s what we needed.”
Two of the three undefeated teams in the MVAL Antietam volleyball standings met Wednesday, and Clear Spring cleared a big hurdle in its quest for a conference title with a 23-25, 25-21, 25-14, 25-19 victory at Smithsburg.
The victory leaves Clear Spring and Williamsport as the two lone unbeaten teams in conference play. Here’s a look at the standings through Wednesday:
Clear Spring 2-0 Antietam, 8-1 overall
Williamsport 1-0 Antietam, 8-1 overall
Smithsburg 1-1 Antietam, 6-3 overall
Boonsboro 1-1 Antietam, 4-4 overall
Catoctin 0-1 Antietam, 5-4 overall
Brunswick 0-2 Antietam, 0-9 overall
And here’s a look ahead at the key Antietam matchups coming up:
Friday — Catoctin at Williamsport, 6:30
Monday — Boonsboro at Clear Spring, 6:30
Monday — Smithsburg at Catoctin, 7
Oct. 16 — Williamsport at Smithsburg, 6:30
Oct. 16 — Boonsboro at Catoctin, 7
Oct. 20 — Clear Spring at Williamsport, 6:30
Oct. 21 — Smithsburg at Boonsboro, 6:30
Certainly, Williamsport and Clear Spring have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do, before either team can worry about their match 12 days from now. Catoctin and Smithsburg are both capable of knocking Williamsport off, and Boonsboro will give Clear Spring a battle. But there’s a good chance when the Blazers and Wildcats meet, that match will decide the conference title.
It was Clear Spring’s overall balance that made the difference against Smithsburg.
The Leopards are certainly better than they were a year ago — that was expected with the vast majority of the team back, a year older and more experienced. And they came out flying on the way to taking the first game, relying on their strength — their two talented middle hitters, Sara Rishell and Colleen Black — to show the way. Rishell and Black each had five kills and two blocks in Game 1, and the Leopards had 15 kills in the game to Clear Spring’s seven.
Rishell finished the match with 15 kills and five blocks, and Black added 11 kills and four blocks. Combined, they won the battle in the middle — although Emily Pinkham (12 kills, five blocks) helped Clear Spring take some of the edge off that advantage.
But the Blazers’ advantages in two other areas — outside attacking and assists — more than overcame Smithsburg’s edge.
Amanda Jenkins was a beast on the left side for Clear Spring, leading all players with 16 kills. She’s not the tallest player, but when she gets a head of steam up as she approaches the ball, look out. She lives up to the term “attacker” … she’s not going for a tip, she’s going to let ‘er rip, and most of the time Wednesday, her rips found the mark. Smithsburg had no answer for her.
“She’s a real big catalyst for this team,” Blazers coach Kim Malphurs said. “The girls have a lot of respect for her game.”
Clear Spring also received contributions from Lindsay Lacy (seven kills) and Lily Pinkham (six kills). After being a non-factor in Game 1, Lacy had two kills and a block in Game 2 and added four kills in Game 4. Lily Pinkham had three kills and two assists in Game 2. With both players raising their game, the Blazers evened the match at one game apiece and started the momentum rolling.
The other main factor was Clear Spring’s two-setter offense wound up outplaying Smithsburg’s one setter. Taylor Belella played a very good game (23 assists, four kills) for the Leopards, but too often she was left scrambling to get to errant passes or digs. Meanwhile, Blazers setters Megan Micco (20 assists) and Katie Blickenstaff (18 assists) benefitted from having each other on the court at the same time — it made it much easier for one or the other to be in position to set up the attack.
“Both of them move the ball around so well, which is huge with our front line,” Malphurs said.
Not to be overlooked, Clear Spring’s defensive effort made a difference as well. Five players — Lacy (18), Blickenstaff (13), Micco, Emily Pinkham and Jenkins (10 each) had double-digit digs.
“Our defensive coverage, I thought, was excellent,” Malphurs said. “It was a little weak in Game 1, but after that, it was excellent.”
Malphurs said she was not concerned after the Blazers fell behind 1-0.
“We need a warmup game,” Malphurs said. “That’s how it’s been all year. I just stay patient and calm and let them go to work. I have a lot of confidence in this team.”
As for the Leopards, coach Rachel Brashear knows one loss in the MVAL Antietam does not completely eliminate her team from the title chase.
“(The league) is really anybody’s game,” Brashear said. “We haven’t played Boonsboro or Williamsport. When our passing is on, we can play with the best of the best. We just need a little confidence. … What we need is a close (match) against a team and we pull it out.”