If one word accurately sums up the Northwest Jaguars’ varsity volleyball program since 2014, that word would be dominant.
How dominant? Try three consecutive state championships, five consecutive appearances in the state tournament final and only two match losses over the past four years.
The Jags continued their dominance over the state of Maryland by winning their fourth consecutive state title, defeating Urbana 3-0 in the MPSSAA State Volleyball Tournament final at the University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum in College Park Monday night.
“Congratulations to them,” head coach Stephanie Blake said. “[Rachael Bennett and Jenaisya Moore] are seniors, so every year that they’ve been in high school, they have won, so I think that’s an amazing accomplishment.” The Lady Jags had six total seniors, Morgan Lowrey, Nicole Reinikka, Taylor Wright, and Hanna Rim, along with Bennett and Moore.
While the Hawks (15-4) did put up a good fight, they were no match for the red-hot Jaguars (18-1), who had only dropped one set in all of their matches since their lone regular-season loss to Wootton on October 15.
“There’s absolutely pressure,” Blake said. “Urbana had nothing to lose, they made it here, but we’re the reigning champs. We’ve been here three times in a row; all the pressure is on us, everybody wants to take us down, [and] everyone wants to be the team that has us lose.”
Northwest was dominant early on in the championship match, storming out to a 20-2 lead after winning 17 straight points on the serve of Yvonne Nguyen. The sophomore setter would finish the match with five service aces.
“I just tried to do what I normally do [and] try to get an ace on it, try to get an out-of-system ball so that the play wouldn’t be as hard over,” she said.
Urbana began clawing its way back into the set, shrinking a 22-6 Northwest lead to 22-11, but Northwest would take the opening set 25-14 after buckling down on serve receive.
“Our serve receive, [for] me personally, that gets me going,” Moore said. “When my serve receive is really good, I know I’m going to have a good game.”
“We knew that we needed to stop their serves,” Rachael Bennett said. “We knew that we need a good serve receive in order to get a good sideout, so we focused more on our serve receive and our defense than anything else.”
The Jags fell into a 3-0 hole to start the second set but drew even at 3-3 and 5-5 before eventually taking their first lead of the set at 6-5. The Hawks stayed close and tied things at 6-6 and 9-9 until the Jags won 12 of the next 14 points for a 21-11 lead.
“When we did start to block, it shifted the momentum, [and] it gave us the energy to keep our playing up and our momentum up,” Rachael Bennett said. “It really shifted us and made us push even harder to win the set.”
Thanks in part to some key blocks up front, Northwest closed out the second set 25-13. The team was just a set away from claiming the four-peat.
The Jags found early leads at 1-0 and 2-1 in the third set but soon found themselves down 5-2. They stayed within touching distance of the Hawks, leveling the set at 5-5, 7-7, 8-8 and 9-9 before finally retaking the lead at 10-9.
Northwest never surrendered the lead for the remainder of the match. Two consecutive points from 22-13 set up the team’s first match point, and a lengthy rally that ended with a failed Urbana dig attempt into the net sealed the victory for Northwest.
“I just think that we stayed focused throughout the entire match,” Moore said. “Whenever we would let Urbana come on those runs, we’d be like: OK, that’s two, that’s three, we need to stop, we need to get a ball up and just execute at the net.”
The Jags’ benches almost immediately emptied as the players rushed onto the court to embrace their fellow teammates in celebration. “Four-peat” cheers from the crowd and the team soon filled every corner of Ritchie Coliseum until the trophy ceremony had finished.
From their outside hitter positions, Moore finished the match with 15 kills and nine digs, while Rachael Bennett posted seven kills and four digs.
Freshman setter Isabella Neumann tallied 26 assists and five digs, while sophomore libero Michelle Bennett had two assists and six digs. Senior middle blocker Morgan Lowrey racked up two solo blocks and four block assists, contributing to Northwest’s eight total blocks that effectively neutralized Urbana’s offensive attack.
While the Jags may have won practically everything that there is to win over the past four years, it’s not all about who wins and who loses. To the team, it’s simply about the love of the game.
“If you don’t have that love for the game and you’re just playing, then you play completely different than not wanting to lose, wanting to win, playing to win rather than playing to lose, and just leaving that whole heart on the court,” Blake said. “I always tell them before every game [to] play with your heart. If you play with your heart, you’ll be fine.”
Top: The Lady Jags holding four fingers signifying the school’s fourth straight Maryland State Championship title.
Next: Senior Jenaisya Moore (18) had 15 kills and nine digs in the title match.
Next: Sophomore Yvonne Nguyen (9) got the Jags off to a solid start by serving 17 straight points in the opening game of the match.
Next: Senior Rachael Bennett (16) posted seven kills and four digs en route to her fourth straight state title.
Next: The Lady Jags celebrate after receiving their championship medals on Monday night at Ritchie Coliseum.
Photos by Billy Owens for Germantown Pulse