Sometimes teams win because of experience, and sometimes because of athleticism. The best teams will have a combination of both. That is what the 19-0 Northwest Jags used on Wednesday night to defeat 23-1 Severna Park Falcons in four games, 20-25, 25-14, 25-19, 26-24 to earn a spot a second straight spot in the 4A state championship game.
However, the victory did not come easy.
After dropping the first game, the Lady Jags were up two games to one, at the Ritchie Coliseum in College Park and they were leading the fourth game by three points, but Severna Park had come back after trailing by as many as 11 points. Northwest Head Coach Stephanie Blake could see momentum building for the defending state champs and called a timeout.
Northwest fans could feel the match slipping away from the Lady Jags, who were defeated by Severna Park in that same building in the 4A championship game last season. The Falcons had won 37 straight matches and had not lost a match since falling the state final to Dulaney in 2013. Severna Park was storming back.
Blake knew that if the Falcons came back and won the fourth game, they would have great momentum going into a deciding fifth game. Severna Park was a dangerous team.
During that timeout, she tried to settle her team down. “I told them, ‘This is your game. You have the momentum. We control our destiny. Let them make the errors because that is what got us the win in the third set” She reminded them of all the hard work that they put into getting to the state tournament. “You have worked too hard for too long to let this happen to you in this set.”
Prior to the timeout, the Falcons had won five straight points to cut the lead to three. Northwest led 20-17. The Lady Jags would respond with two straight points. Junior Leilani Mayer would get a kill and block at the net to make the score 22-17.
The defending champs would win the next four points to tie the game at 22 apiece. The building became electric, as Severna Park fans could feel the comeback happening, and the Northwest faithful began to cheer on their team.
It would be two players that were not on last year’s Northwest team that went down to defeat at the hands of the Falcons that would break this tie. Mayer, who moved to the Germantown area from California this year, would get the Lady Jags back on top with a kill, followed by a sweetly finessed lift over the net from sophomore Janiece Jefferies, who was not on the varsity team last year. The Lady Jags led 24-22 and were serving for match point.
“In practice I work as hard as I can on my timing [for blocks],” said Mayer. “My timing was off at the beginning of the season because I had issues.” Mayer is recovering from knee surgery, and this win comes almost one year to the day since the surgery, she said. “I had to really fix my timing. I just said, ‘This is your time to be on. You have to protect your back row.’ She said that during the season senior teammate Biamba Tshitenge was getting all the blocks. “I just said, ‘I want to get some blocks.”
But after a timeout, the defending champs fought back again. The Falcons got two straight points to tie the score at 24-24.
In the end, two veteran Jags players would use their experience to come up big. Senior Biamba Tshitenge would block a shot at the net to make the score 25-24 and get the serve back for Northwest. After a serve by senior Chaya Riggs was returned by Severna Park, Jefferies would set up senior Gabby Bennett to end it 26-24.
“I was just hoping not to mess it up,” said Jefferies. “I just didn’t want to mess that up. When I saw that she hit it down, I was just totally relieved.”
Bennett would hammer the ball to the right while jumping to her left to give the Lady Jags the victory and allow them to advance to another shot at a state championship.
“Losing to them last year wasn’t a good feeling,” said Bennett, “and I knew that if I got the opportunity to put it down hard, I wanted to put it down hard.”
“[Severna Park] definitely would have a lot of momentum going into the fifth game,” said Coach Blake. “It was great that our girls could end that fourth game. It was great that they could remain calm, and focused and confident and get the win.”
“I am so proud of them,” said Blake. “They played awesome. We still have one match left, but they played really well. It was really tough watching the 11 point lead that we had go down. But Severna Park is a really strong team, and they played very smart. But our girls reacted the way that they should, and they dug deep and gave it all they had.”
"The Northwest block that we faced tonight was exceptional," said Severna Park senior Tara Register, who was on the other side of the victory last season. "I think everyone of us got absolutely roofed tonight. I think we did a good job in that fourth set hitting around them, but hat's off to them, they've obviously put a lot of work into that skill, and it's paid off. They have one of the most consistent blocks that we’ve faced."
The fourth game was the most exciting portion of a very competitive match, with both teams pushing the other the entire time. Northwest freshman Jenaisya Moore had 18 kills and 17 digs, and Mayer helped with 11 kills. The Jaguars got 53 points off kills, compared to 35 for the Falcons.
The Lady Jags will play Dulaney on Monday night at 8:00 pm in the Ritchie Coliseum for the 4A Maryland State Championship. And while, one might think that after defeating the defending state champs, Northwest should have an easy time of it, that is not the case. The Dulaney Lions are unbeaten this season and 75-3 since 2012.
Dulaney has lost only three games since 2012 all in the post-season. They lost to Sherwood last year in the semi-finals. They fell to Severna Park in 2013 final, and Sherwood beat them in the 2012 final. Last night, Dulaney defeated previously unbeaten Bowie in straight sets, 25-17, 25-15, and 25-18.
“I think this match will carry on for a few days and the memory of this game and how difficult it was and how hard it was,” said Coach Blake about the team's psyche going into the championship match. “I don’t think it is going to be an issue getting up for Dulaney because we were in the state championship last year and, unfortunately, we didn’t win. Our girls know it is a different year for us.”
Top: Northwest’s Gabby Bennett (13) jumps for joy after killing the winning point in the fourth game of the match against Severna Park, while Biamba Tshitenge (17) and teammates celebrate.
Next: Northwest frontliners Biamba Tshitenge (17) and Janiece Jefferies (9) go up for a block. They would combine for 10 of the Jags’ 18 blocks in the game.
Next: Senior Chaya Riggs (1) serving in the third game. Riggs would end the match with five service aces, getting four in a row to help win the third game.
Next: The Jaguars celebrate a point during the second game.
Next: Gabby Bennett (13) gets one of her ten kills. She would also have the match-winning kill to propel the Jags to the state final game on Monday.
Next: Northwest freshman Jenaisya Moore (9) goes for one of her 18 kills in Wednesday’s game.
Next: Biamba Tshitenge (17) leaps to make a block late in the fourth game of the match to break the tie and give the Lady Jags the 25-24 lead.
Next: The Lady Jags before the game. They will play Dulaney on Monday, Nov. 23 at 8:00 pm for the 4A state championship.
Photos by Germantown Pulse