For the third year in a row, the Lady Jags from Northwest played for the Maryland State 4A Volleyball Championship, and for the second year in a row, the Jags came home with the championship on Saturday, Nov. 19 at the Ritchie Coliseum at the University of Maryland.
The Lady Jags defeated Sherwood in three sets, thanks in large part to sophomore Jenaisya Moore whose 24 kills gave the Lady Warrior’s fits.
“They came out on fire, Jenaisya hit the ball like crazy tonight,” said Sherwood Head Coach Jacob Achten after the game.
Moore who was a standout player last season had averaged 5.4 kills per set but on Saturday in the Final, she earned 10 kills in the second set and 11 kills in the third set, including the championship winner. She also combined with fellow sophomore Rachael Bennett to lead the team with seven blocks apiece. Moore also had one ace while serving.
The Lady Jags came out on fire in the first game as senior Leilani Mayer made her presence known in her second straight appearance in the State Finals game. Mayer started the game with three straight kills and the Lady Jags never looked back. Sherwood would never lead in the match as Northwest powered their way to back-to-back championships. Mayer would finish the match with six kills and two block assists.
The Jags also got points off the serve as sophomore Nicole Reinikka earned four service aces from the back line, while junior setter Janiece Jefferies teed up 23 assists for Moore and Mayer.
Head Coach Stephanie Blake and her team knew that Sherwood would not be an easy game. It was Sherwood and their senior combination of Megan Wilson and Kaiya Heyliger-Powell who ended Northwest’s 31 game winning streak exactly one month before. The Warriors beat the Jags in five sets.
Defensively, the Jags contained Heyliger-Powell, who will play at Coastal Carolina University next season, to 16 kills on 38 attempts thanks in part to the defense of Reinikka, Bennett, and Moore. Moore and Bennett had seven digs each and Reinikka had six.
“As a blocker, you are trained to go up and line up with the right shoulder and push over and make sure you hit that ball,” said junior Dasha Kurochkina about the facing a big hitter like Heyliger-Powell. Kurochkina made her third appearance in a Maryland State Final match. “A lot of Kaiya’s balls went off our hands which is okay because our defense in the back row was always able to get them up. But Janiece (Jefferies) and I, in the front row, really tried to block her; we always double teamed her.”
“We were able to dig up her balls but also make her work,” said Jefferies. “We tried to tire her out so that she wouldn’t be able to get her full approach outside. Making her work also threw her off a little.”
Blake said the loss might have been a good thing to help motivate her young team. “Last year, Rachael, Jenasiya, and Leilani were on the team last year when we won, so they had never known losing at Northwest. We just won that is how it was,” said Blake. “Dasha and Janiece were the only two who had lost on varsity. I couldn’t say remember last year when we lost, or remember when we played this team, and it was so hard, or remember that feeling. I couldn’t use those memories because we didn’t have them.” The loss to Sherwood galvanized the team to perform when it mattered.
“It was good motivation. Since we lost to Severna Park in the final game two years ago, and we had so much motivation to beat them in the championship last year,” said Blake. “Then a month ago we lost to Sherwood, it was our first game without Anya and Rachel had to play outside for the first time. It was just a complete mess. They remembered how they felt. Everyone was heartbroken after ending a 31 game winning streak.”
The junior Kurochkina said the loss really forced the team to focus. “It motivated us to work harder to beat them in three sets instead of losing in five,” said Kurochkina, who had three kills in the championship match.
“I was hoping to play Sherwood again,” said Jefferies. “It was great motivation.”
Blake said that she had made some minor changes to the Jags’ lineup for the run through the states. “We were going to through all these crazy lineups and a week ago, was when we found this new line up. In the regional championships is where we found this lineup.” Blake said she was changing the lineup to find one that would work because the loss of senior Anya Chepurnova who injured her knee.
“I thought before the regional final that I wanted to try something new,” said Blake. “I switched Dasha and Leilani so that Dasha was up front with Jenaisya. We tried it and worked amazingly. Tonight, we switched up our lineup a bit; it was the same lineup, but we rotated differently. Jenaisya was in the back row when Kiaya was in the front row, so we had better defense back there.”
The Lady Jags tore through the regular season competition this year winning all but one match with essentially just one senior on the team. The two seniors on the roster, Chepurnova and Mayer were only active at the same for less than one week. Mayer suffered a knee injury in preseason and was out until Oct. 10 and Chepurnova went down with a knee injury a few days after Mayer’s return to the lineup.
Once the postseason started, the Lady Jags continued their dominance defeating Quince Orchard and Wootton in four sets each and earning their third straight trip back to the Ritchie Coliseum with a three-set victory over Churchill.
In the State Semi-Final, on Wednesday, Nov. 16 that Jags defeated Bowie in three sets. In that game, Moore had 15 kills and Mayer had 10 kills. In that game, Bennett had 11 digs and Moore and Jefferies had seven digs each.
Blake said that because of the success of the program the last three years, it was becoming hard to motivate her Jags at times during the season.
“I would get frustrated because they just don’t understand what an honor it is to be playing here,” said Blake. “I guess the five girls that were on the team last year did understand it, even though we didn’t lose a game last year. I guess they really talked it up to other players on the team and got them to focus and know that it is not the five returners that were the key, but the people that really need to step up were the ones that weren’t on the team last year.”
“I told the girls to remember how you felt after losing that game, and we had practice the next day, and we still had games to play,” said Blake. “Here in the final of the final, to lose you just don’t want that feeling again. They went out, and they showed it real quick.”
Top: The Northwest Jags hold the Maryland State Championship trophy high after their 3-0 defeated of Sherwood at the University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum on Saturday.
Next: Sophomore Jenasiya Moore (18) cranks a kill shot over the net late in the championship game. She would have 24 kills in the match.
Video: Jenasiya Moore gets the final kill of the championship match, as the Lady Jags celebrate back-to-back Maryland State Championships.
Next: Junior Dasha Kurochkina (14) and freshman Natailya Chepurnova (11) jump to block a shot from Sherwood’s Sarah Le (24).
Next: Northwest sophomore Nicole Reinikka (6) had four service aces in the championship match.
Next: Northwest senior Leilani Mayer (12) attempts a kill over Sherwood’s Kaiya Heyliger-Powell (33), Simonne McCants (18), and Grace Aceto (11).
Next: Leilani Mayer (12) smashes a shot past Grace Aceto (11). Mayer had six kills in the championship match.
Next: Jenasiya Moore (18) reaches to tip a ball over the net.
Photos and videos by Germantown Pulse.
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