The Northwest Jaguars’ varsity volleyball team is no stranger to the University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum.
With a runner-up finish in 2014’s state championship and state titles the past three years, the program has a lot of great memories and past experiences inside that arena to look back on.
The Jags now have another great memory of Ritch Coliseum as they defeated 4A East champion South River 3-0 in the semifinals of the 2018 MPSSAA State Volleyball Tournament in College Park on Monday evening.
“We were really excited to play South River because we knew they were really good and they only lost one game in the regular season also,” head coach Stephanie Blake said. “We were definitely nervous coming in because we know that they’re a good team, but we came out in the first set and we really took care of business.”
Unlike the Jags (17-1), the Seahawks (16-3) weren’t as accustomed to the state semifinal spotlight. Monday’s semifinal match was their first state tournament appearance since 1997.
“I thought in the first set you could just tell they were a little bit scared, because the first time we came here it was scary, too,” Blake said. “But since we’ve been here the last five years, the first time was when these girls were in eighth grade, we’re comfortable with it.”
Northwest didn’t appear fazed by the moment at all in the first set, jumping out to early leads of 13-4 and 20-5. With South River still settling in, Northwest claimed the opening set 25-10.
The Seahawks started finding some consistency in the early stages of the second set as they established a 6-0 lead. The Jaguars would sideout and roar back, grabbing their first lead of the set at 10-9, until the Seahawks battled back for 13-13 and eventually retook the lead at 15-14.
“We were down 6-0 and we just couldn’t get out of that serve receive rotation, and so that set the tone for the rest of the game and it was back and forth all the way,” senior outside hitter Jenaisya Moore said. “We never had a lead, it was their momentum. They had the momentum [in the] second set.”
Down set points at 24-20, Northwest took the next four points to even the set at 24-24. South River would get another set point at 25-24, but Northwest snuffed it out and eventually earned its own set point opportunity.
The Jags finally converted on their second set point to win it 28-26 and take a two-set lead.
“It was all about the defense,” senior outside hitter Rachael Bennett said. “We had to have good defense in order to keep the ball in play and keep getting kills and keep scoring.”
The third set began with multiple lead changes as a 2-1 advantage for the Jags soon became a 5-4 deficit. They retook the lead at 6-5, but the Seahawks stayed within shouting distance, down 10-9.
Northwest began to pull away, leading 21-13, but South River rallied back to narrow the gap to 21-17. Three points later, Northwest had its first match point at 24-17.
The Jags would convert on their second match point, winning the third set 25-18 and advancing to the state final for the fifth consecutive year with the hope of taking home their fourth straight state championship.
“I let [the] girls know that it’s not just given, it doesn’t just happen,” Blake said. “It’s something to be proud of and it’s like a tradition to keep carrying it on, because the girls that were on five years ago, that’s a long time ago.”
Moore led the Jags in Monday’s semifinal with a double-double in digs (18) and kills (26). Michelle and Rachael Bennett posted 35 and 26 digs, respectively, with Rachael also adding eight kills.
Junior Nataliya Chepurnova logged five kills, while senior middle blocker Morgan Lowrey finished with five blocks. Freshman setter Isabella Neumann had 32 assists and three aces on the day.
“We always have to be ready and just play our best every game, and just not get cocky but still be confident, as [sophomore libero] Michelle [Bennett] would say,” Chepurnova said. “[We] just keep up our game and just worry about ourselves and keep pushing and staying focused.”
Northwest will look to four-peat as Maryland state champions next week as it faces 4A North regional champion Urbana, who comes off a 3-0 win over 4A South champion Eleanor Roosevelt in the other semifinal match.
First serve in College Park is scheduled for 8:00 pm on Monday.
Top: The Lady Jaguars of Northwest are headed to their fifth-straight Maryland State title game, in hopes of winning their fourth-straight championship.
Next: Northwest Jenaisya Moore (18) with one of her 26 kills in the match.
Next: Northwest senior Rachel Bennett (16) with a return volley.
Next: Northwest sophomore Michelle Bennett (13) serves during Monday’s 3-0 victory over South River.
Next: The Lady Jags are poised to win their fourth-straight Maryland State Championship next Monday night as they will face the Urbana Hawks.
Photos by Billy Owens for Germantown Pulse