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Hardship and Hard Work Bind a Tight Knit Northwest Volleyball Team as It Claims State Championship

“This team is like a family to me,” said Northwest senior Chaya Riggs, as she addressed reporters after Monday night’s straight set victory over volleyball powerhouse Dulaney High School at Ritchie Coliseum in College Park, to bring home Northwest’s first ever Maryland State Volleyball Championship.

The Lady Jags defeated Dulaney in straight sets 25-19, 25-21, and 25-20 win the championship.

Riggs knows better than most how important the bond between teammates can be. Less than one month ago, as her team was preparing for its playoff run, two 13-year-old boys set fire to her house in Germantown. On the evening of October 28, Riggs and her team were at the school practicing, heard the sirens, and saw the smoke from the blaze.

The smoke was coming from the neighborhood near Riggs’s house. So the team began to head toward the fire to investigate. Firefighters were already battling the fire when Riggs and her teammates discovered that it was her house that was burning.

Riggs and her teammates stood in the pouring rain and watched as firefighters smashed windows and pulled apart walls in an effort to fight the blaze at her house.

“These girls are my best friends and have been for a couple years now,” said Riggs. “They were there with me the whole night. They were amazing.” She said that teammates Gabby Bennett, Becca Grundy and Kelly Solomon, gave her clothes to wear since all of her family’s belongings were lost in the fire. “They gave me so much clothes and everyone was so thoughtful and understanding and so helpful,” said Riggs.

“I am so glad to be surrounded by this group of girls, and, of course, Coach,” said Riggs as she beamed at the Lady Jags’ Head Coach Stephanie Blake. “She has been the best, especially through that tough time.”

A week later, the two boys were arrested and charged with setting the fire. Her world was turned on its head in a few hours. With her home gone, Chaya Riggs knew she could depend on her teammates. Having the volleyball team and practice, and a common goal to win the championship gave Riggs an environment where things were somewhat normal.

“It was really hard at first, trying to deal with that. They just made it really easy for me. Volleyball pumps me up. We have the best time. We are so pumped up when we play volleyball. We were all just having fun.”

Riggs was having fun last night and playing great volleyball when her team needed her. Riggs is a serving specialist and came through in the championship match with seven service aces for points. She had four straight aces in the second game and three in the final game.

It was the service aces that were the difference in the match. The Lady Jags would finish the match with 16 unreturned serves while the Dulaney Lions could only muster five aces.

“They were the better team today,” said Dulaney Head Coach Cary Lyon. “We missed four or five times as many serves as they did and the difference is almost exactly what the score was. Give them credit, they were hustling and getting balls.”

Blake said it was the relationships her team has with one another that helped make this year’s run to the finals different from last year. She said that this was a team made up of best friends. “On the court and off the court.”

The seniors began bonding last season, as they were the leaders of a senior-less team that advanced all the way to the state final, but were turned away by last year’s champs Severna Park. Players like Riggs, Gabby Bennett, Emma Liler, Becca Grundy (who was injured for the post-season), Biamba Tshitenge, Jolee Childs, Samantha Matthew, and Erica Orem set the tone at practice that this was going to be the year for a championship.

“Last year at this time, we were just happy to be here even though we lost because it was our first year ever,” said senior Gabby Bennett, “but this year we wanted to win. We wanted to come out and make history for our school.” Bennett led the team in kills in the final match with 11. On the defensive side, Bennett tied sophomore Janiece Jefferies with seven digs in the final match.

“This year, we said it was going to be different,” said Blake. “Going into the summer league and going into tryouts, we knew this was a different year. We would not be happy with just being here.”

Another part of championship makeup was the new girls who joined the team this year. “We had four or five new girls that came in, and they meshed right in. And their chemistry on the court is because of their chemistry off the court. They are just so close.”

Among those who joined the team this year and were a big factor in earning the championship were junior transfer Leilani Mayer whose presence and blocking abilities at the front of the net were a big part of the win over Severna Park to propel the Jags to the finals.

In the finals, it was freshman Jenaisya Moore who came up big. She had nine kills and four service aces in the final match. “Being a freshman, playing with older girls helped push me and make me better. We make each other better. Being pushed in practice helped us show what we had on the court.”

“We have been tested many times this year,” said Riggs, “and fought through and came out on top. It is completely amazing. I am just so proud of this entire team.”

The Lady Jags have taken their spot at the table among the elite volleyball programs in the state with two straight victories of two of the storied volleyball powers in the State of Maryland, in last year’s champion Severna Park and the Dulaney the 2013 champs.

“We do work a lot on being ready for opponents,” said Riggs. “But coach says before every game that this is our game. We play to our level. With the amount of talent and hard work we put into volleyball, we don’t have to worry about our opponent.”

“It really helps us is that we don’t have just one or two really good players,” said Blake. “We have six players that we can set at any given time. I am fine with anybody hitting the ball.”

With Monday’s victory, the Northwest High School athletic program has completed the first part of its two-part mission in Prince Georges County this week.

Last night, the Lady Jags brought home Northwest’s first ever Maryland State Championship in Volleyball, with a straight sets win. On Friday, the football team will have to secure a win at Wise High School in Upper Marlboro to advance to its third straight appearance in the State Final.


Top: Northwest Volleyball Coach Stephanie Blake holds up the State Championship trophy with seniors Gabby Bennett (13), Emma Liler (3), and Biamba Tshitenge (17).

Next: Video of the championship point. Dulaney’s senior server Mallory Svoboda serves. Northwest’s freshman Jenaisya Moore digs the serve to sophomore Janiece Jefferies (9) to set for senior Emma Liler (3) for the kill.

Next: Northwest senior Chaya Riggs (1) serves in the final match. Riggs would have seven service aces in the match to lead all players.

Next: Emma Liler (3) and Biamba Tshitenge (17) go up for a block on Dulaney’s Olivia Finkel (11).

Next: Video of the set-winning point from the second game of the finals. Northwest would win three straight games, 25-19, 25-21, 25-20.

Next: Gabby Bennett (13) attempting on of her 11 kills in the final match against unbeaten Dulaney.

Next: Chaya Riggs (1) and the Lady Jags celebrate a point.

Next: The 2015 4A Maryland State Volleyball Champs.

Photos and video by Germantown Pulse

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