“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.
In 2003, Williamsport won its second of what turned out to be four straight Maryland Class 1A state titles with an unforgettable 25-21, 23-25, 25-22, 21-25, 15-12 win over Poolesville in the state championship match.
The next year, the Wildcats fended off a serious challenge from Boonsboro 25-20, 25-27, 25-17, 14-25, 15-11 in a sensational 1A West final.
In 2007, the Warriors turned the tables on the Wildcats in the 1A West final, scoring a 20-25, 25-20, 23-25, 25-19, 15-11 victory on the way to the state final for the first time in 23 years.
All of those matches generated a similar feeling in me — although time has passed and has faded the memories. I do know those matches had the same elements that Wednesday’s had — great crowds, incredible drama, a sense that I was watching something unforgettable as it happened.
Maybe they were as good as Wednesday’s latest epic chapter in Washington County volleyball history.
I don’t think so.
For one, none of those matches had the ending Wednesday’s had — Smithsburg fighting with everything it had to keep its two-year-long undefeated streak alive, down 14-8 in Game 5, fending off six match points in a match-winning 8-0 run. And it’s not like North handed it to the Leopards on a silver platter: This was no choke. The Hubs made one error, an aggressive hitting error into the net that made it 14-10. No, the Leopards had to earn the win, and earn it, they did.
But that was just one part of what made the match memorable.
First, it was “Block Out Breast Cancer” night at Smithsburg. Both schools sold pink shirts — it really was a “Pink Out” in Smithsburg’s gym — to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness of Cumberland Valley. Bake sales and raffles raised more money — Leopards athletic director Teresa Bachtell estimated more than $5,000 in all would be donated — but what really brought it all into focus was when all the breast cancer survivors (or those currently battling the disease) took center court before the match for a photo. It was a touching moment that reminded everyone why the night was being held in the first place.
“There’s a lot of people here who aren’t volleyball fans, who are here to support the cause,” Smithsburg volleyball coach Rachel Brashear — who also is Bachtell’s daughter — said. “It’s a cause like this that brings people out. Raising $5,000 is something to be proud of. You can’t find many people in this area who haven’t been touched by breast cancer.”
Judging by the atmosphere during the match, those people who weren’t volleyball fans on Wednesday morning certainly were by night’s end.
I have a confession: I didn’t think the match would be all that close. I was swayed by the teams’ results against Francis Scott Key earlier this season. Smithsburg beat FSK in four games, 25-16, 27-29, 25-18, 25-12, on Sept. 21 — the game the Leopards lost had been the only game they’d dropped all season. FSK swept North 25-22, 25-21, 28-26 on Oct. 21. I feared what I wrote in the prep notebook on Oct. 22 — that Wednesday’s match “could turn out to be the biggest test for Smithsburg since the Leopards were pushed to five games by eventual Maryland Class 2A state champion Francis Scott Key early last season” — would prove to be overblown hype.
After Game 1, my fears vanished.
The Hubs were ready to play, and they weren’t overwhelmed by the occasion. They made just four errors in Game 1 (Smithsburg, meanwhile, made 10 and looked a little flustered), and their passing — coach Megan Crawford’s biggest concern all season — held up well enough for Brynne Kirsch to pass out 11 assists, setting up Akilah McCall and Peyton Wallech for five kills each. It was enough for North to stay a couple points ahead through most of the game (despite Sara Rishell’s 14 kills, an insane number for one game), and Wallech came up with a kill under pressure on match point.
It was a huge game for North’s confidence — as it should have been. Lose Game 1, and now you have to beat Smithsburg in 3 of 4 games. I’m not liking those odds. Winning Game 1 was critical.
Now the Leopards needed to answer, and they did by outplaying the Hubs — though not by much — in each of the next two games. Rishell stayed hot in Game 2 with 11 kills (25 in two games, yikes!) and three blocks, and had six kills in the final 10 points of the game. Rishell had four more kills in Game 3, but it was her supporting cast that stepped up — namely Danielle Beaver (five kills) and Danielle Harbaugh (four kills).
That brings us to Game 4, otherwise known as the greatest game I have ever seen. It had 12 ties, five lead changes and 41 kills (Smithsburg had 24 — 15 by Rishell to bring her four-game total to a ridiculous 44 — and North had 17, including nine by McCall). Somehow, the Hubs made only one error. One! And yet the Leopards (who made 10 errors) still had four match points, all of which North denied before pulling the game out to force Game 5. Crazy.
The play-by-play, starting with Smithsburg ahead 20-17, which is where things got real interesting:
20-17: Kill by North’s Autumn Fisher.
20-18: Kill by Fisher.
20-19: Kill by McCall.
20-20: Kill by Fisher.
21-20 North: Kill by Rishell.
21-21: Kill by Rishell.
22-21 Smithsburg: Kill by Rishell, North timeout.
23-21: Kill by McCall.
23-22: Smithsburg error.
23-23: Kill by Rishell.
24-23 Smithsburg (match point): Kill by Fisher.
24-24: Kill by Rishell.
25-24 Smithsburg (match point): Wallech blocks Rishell, the roof just about comes off.
25-25: Kill by Rishell.
26-25 Smithsburg (match point): Kill by Wallech.
26-26: Kill by Smithsburg’s Katie Sprecher.
27-26 Smithsburg (match point): Kill by McCall.
27-27: Smithsburg error.
28-27 North (match point): Kill by Harbaugh.
28-28: Kill by McCall.
29-28 North (match point): Kill by McCall to win the game as the crowd erupts.
Sports just don’t get better than those 10 minutes. The fans (it was an overflow crowd) were reacting after every point. You had the Leopards trying to win the match and the Antietam title and keep their streak going. And you had the upstart Hubs, now believing they could play with and maybe beat Smithsburg, fighting tooth and nail and, in the middle of all this pressure, playing such a clean match (only 21 errors in the whole match). Phenomenal stuff.
There’s no question losing Game 4 rattled Smithsburg. Kirsch, who finished with 50 assists for the Hubs, opened Game 5 with three straight aces, forcing a quick timeout by Brashear. North went on to a 5-1 lead, then turned a 10-8 lead into a 14-8 cushion on a block and a kill by Wallech, an ace by Erika Lawrance and a Smithsburg error.
At that point, the only thing going through my mind was, “I don’t believe North is going to pull this off.” I think pretty much everybody was thinking that.
Except the Leopards wouldn’t let it happen. I detailed Smithsburg’s final 8-0 run in my main story. There were only two things I was thinking at the end: “How did that happen?” and “Wow, I feel bad for North’s players.” Total stomach punch (yes, that’s a Bill Simmons reference). I hope those girls hold their heads high — they played a great match.
As for how it happened? Rishell had a theory.
“Coach called a timeout at 12-8 and didn’t say anything,” she said. “I didn’t say a word, either. I just pointed to my arm and said, ‘This is for him.’ Things worked out for us, and he was watching out for us.”
‘He’ is Patrick Bachtell, the son of Teresa Bachtell and brother of Brashear who died tragically on Oct. 22. The Leopards wore armbands in his memory.
Patrick won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Neither will Wednesday’s match.