The Centennial volleyball team posted undefeated county records in two of the past three seasons and has won 14 Maryland state championships. Tenth-ranked River Hill has not won a state volleyball title .
In recent years, however, the gap has closed. On Thursday night in Clarksville, River Hill squeaked out three straight games to claim a sweep, 25-22, 26-24, 25-22, and improve to 7-1.
“It’s kind of expected that it’s going to be a close game,” Hawks middle hitter Emily Luo said. “It was a little nerve-racking, but I think we did a good job of calming each other down and winning the big points.”
River Hill Coach Lynn Paynter said the rivalry between the schools has roots dating from her first year with the program 11 years ago, but it didn’t really heat up until recently.
“We used to always fear Centennial. And then all of a sudden we beat Centennial, and it was such a great feeling when we did,” Paynter said. “Now we just go back and forth all the time.”
Thursday night’s match was no exception.
Although River Hill won in straight sets, each set was tight. The match turned on a number of crucial plays at the net, where Luo, Keana Richards and Kalala Pines combined for 16 kills and 12 blocks.
“As a player who used to mainly play defense, I know how important it is to have a good block up,” said Sydni Horner, who finished with 12 kills and eight digs. “It’s easier to defend obviously, and they just really get up there and close the block. They make it like a wall. It’s hard to get through.”
The second set was even at 24 before a diving dig by Gabby Paci trickled over the net to give the Hawks a slight advantage. Then Luo, a 5-foot-10 sophomore, lightly touched a ball over Centennial’s blockers to give River Hill a two-set cushion.
“Getting the block up was definitely our number one goal today,” Luo said. “We kept pushing to get the block up even if we didn’t think we would get it. We persevered to try to get there.”
Horner said she was particularly pumped up for Thursday’s match not just because it was a rivalry game but because every win makes a difference in Howard County, which is full of parity this season.
“Usually there’s one team that just rises above and goes undefeated,” Horner said. “But this year, any team has the potential in this county to rise to the top.”
The Eagles (4-4) have struggled, but Coach Larry Schofield said his squad played its best match of the season Thursday.
“They played up to what I expected them to play against us,” Paynter said , “because that’s how it always happens.”