At last, sweet victory for Atlee girls volleyball, and to the unlikeliest of teams.
Few gave Kylah Blackmore, Rachel Stanford, Clarke Tyler, Melanie Snyder and Molly Jarvis a prayer of returning to the state tournament spotlight after having Championship Point a year ago before falling in a heartbreaking defeat to Kellam.
“When we lost and I walked off the floor last year, I never thought I’d be back here,” Blackmore said.
But those who did believe, both on the team and in Raider Nation, were richly rewarded Saturday night, as the Atlee Raiders completed a dream season, going 32-2 and capturing their first-ever State Championship, in another five-set thriller against rival Stone Bridge, 17-25, 25-20, 11-25, 25-23 and 15-13. This was the third match in four years in state tourney competition between the Raiders and Bulldogs. Stone Bridge won in the 2010 state semifinals, Atlee won, ironically, in a five-set semifinal a year ago that had the same 15-13 tiebreaker result.
Poetic justice flowed from the court when sophomore Molly Jarvis earned her 15th kill of the match on Championship Point. A year earlier, Jarvis was a raw freshman, thrust into an impossible position when Kayleigh Moody tore her ACL landing awkwardly in the fourth set of the 2012 State Finals against Kellam. At the time, Atlee led 2-1, 4-2 in the fourth. They made it to 24-23 serving for the title, but would be denied.
Kellam’s middle game swarmed over the inexperienced Jarvis, scoring 18 of the last 20 points of the match to secure the title. Jarvis spent the entire off-season bound and determined to prove herself worthy of her Atlee uniform. She has come up in key situations several times through the season, but none more special than at 14-13 in the fifth and final set, the state trophy hanging in the balance.
“She was beating herself up some Thursday [after Atlee’s semifinal win over Broad Run],” said Atlee head coach Curtis Carpenter of Jarvis. “[Assistant coach Kasey Ogden] told her, ‘You’ve been in a tougher situation. It’ll never be tougher than that.’ So, yes, it was nice justice for her.”
Clarke Tyler, who rained 28 kills on Princess Anne in another come-from-behind five-set win in the 5A South Regionals last week, led the Raiders Saturday night with 18 kills. But critical blocks by Tyler, teaming with Maddie French and at times with Jarvis, were also crucial to the Raiders’ success.
Senior Rachel Stanford continued to be the glue that held the rhythm and rhyme of the Raiders together with 45 assists and 17 digs. And Snyder, who took a kill from Libby Haslett right in the face during the fifth set, had 25 digs, four aces and three assists. Through all the pain of her 2013 season (shin injuries and illnesses), she felt no pain tonight.
“I could have had a broken bone in every part of my body and it wouldn’t have mattered,” Snyder joked at the post-match press conference.
For the Bulldogs, who finish 26-3, they found themselves in a role similar to Atlee just a year ago, with a 2-1 lead in the state championship only to see it slip away. Haslett, who led Stone Bridge with 24 kills, 14 digs, and three aces, became the focal point of their offense by the fifth set. The VCU commit, who is also the daughter of Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, summed up her team’s performance.
“We didn’t play to win tonight. We played not to lose,” a teary-eyed Haslett said, having ended her high school career on her future collegiate court.
Stone Bridge roared to a 13-1 lead opening set before the Raiders settled down. Atlee scored seven of the final 10 points of the set, but by then, the Bulldogs had taken the opener 25-17. It was a familiar pattern for Atlee, who lost the first set to Broad Run in Thursday’s state semifinal as well as to Princess Anne.
The Raiders took set two by five points, but, even after losing set three 25-11, Snyder told her coach and teammates it would be okay. But it wasn’t without a struggle. A very controversial call late in the fourth set helped Stone Bridge cut a 24-20 deficit to 24-23. On one point, the Raiders were preparing to head to the other side of the court for set five before the head official reversed a point call for Atlee, awarding it to Stone Bridge.
But when it mattered most, Atlee watched Bulldog junior Shannon Williams drive the ball into the net. Atlee took the 25-23 win.
Stone Bridge won the first point of set five (as well as the first point of every set). But Atlee launched a 4-0 run thanks to the service of Rachel Stanford. A Haslett kill ended her run at 4-3 Atlee. The Raiders continued that one- to two-point margin to 7-5. The turning point of the final set came after the Bulldogs scored twice to tie the set at 7-7.
It was time for Ashlyn Dunlop to serve. Atlee had to keep her from going on a run as she had twice previously. They did, earning the sideout, taking Dunlop out after just one serve opportunity for an 8-7 lead. One of three unforced errors by the Bulldogs upped it to 9-7. But back-to-back kills by Williams and Haslett tied it at 9-9. Six points to the championship.
The Raiders rose to the occasion, as Tyler had a kill, the second unforced error by Stone Bridge made it 11-9, then Jarvis drove one home for a 12-9 advantage. Out of a Stone Bridge timeout, Tyler’s serve was long. The Bulldogs served, but Blackmore’s kill attempt was blocked out of bounds, making it 13-10.
Stone Bridge called their final timeout and scored first to make it 13-11, but the third and final error, a serve gone too long, made it Championship Point Atlee for the second straight year.
The Bulldogs would not go quietly into the night. After a Maddie French kill attempt went wide, Stone Bridge scored again. It was 14-13. Timeout Atlee.
The Raiders handled the serve, the ball was fed to Jarvis, and confidently, she literally, and figuratively rose to the occasion, spiking the ball into the heart of the Bulldogs’ side of the court, touching off a celebration in Raider Nation.
Tears of joy in 2013 replaced the bitter tears of disappointment from 2012. Seniors hugged, youngsters like Emmalee Martin and French, who contributed much in their first varsity seasons of action, screamed, smiled, and cried.
And when the players were announced to receive their individual awards during the post-game ceremony, every single one of them hugged Coach Carpenter before going to the award table.
“I train them the best way that I know how so they can be competitive. To compete, they have to do it, it’s not me,” Carpenter reflected. “I can remind them of things, but when it comes down to it, they’ve gotta play the game. They did a pretty good job of it tonight.”
Tyler will now play collegiately at Norfolk State, Stanford at Catawba College, a Division II institution in North Carolina. We’ll see about Kylah Blackmore.
For Snyder, Jarvis, French, Martin, and Lauren Stanford, they’ll return to Atlee in 2014, and nobody will doubt their ability, determination and talent. Because until somebody knocks them off the mountaintop, no one will make the mistake again of dismissing Atlee volleyball.