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Warriors get best of Northern again in 3A South final

La Plata (15-2) vs. Centennial (17-0)

What: Class 3A state volleyball semifinalWhen: 8 tonightWhere: University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum, College Park

By DALLAS COGLE

Staff writer

Seemingly in total control of Friday’s Class 3A South Region championship match, the La Plata Warriors had all the momentum after winning the opening two games with a sweep of the playoff rival Northern Patriots completely in the realm of possibility.

But Northern refused to surrender easily, leading for much of Game 3 until pulling away at the end.

Northern’s upper hand continued into Game 4, controlling it throughout with minor leads until La Plata managed to knot the score at 20, then at 21, 22 and 23 before the Patriots countered with a 24-23 advantage and were just a point away from forcing an all-deciding Game 5.

That’s when the highly lauded, quick-footed La Plata defense — which head coach Catherine Lavery praises as the best she’s ever had in five seasons atop the program — took matters into its own hands, fueling three straight points to spoil a Northern game point while ending the match in exhilarating mode.

An emphatic block by senior setter Heidi Rottman sealed second-seeded La Plata’s 26-24 comeback win in Game 4 and clinched an impressive third straight regional championship for the Warriors in front a large crowd at home with the tight three-games-to-one victory (25-23, 25-20, 17-25, 26-24) over fourth-seeded Northern.

“It was a really good feeling to know that I got that [block] in and that we won the [regional title],” said Rottman, whose setting was largely responsible for La Plata’s 42-34 favor in kills, finishing with three putaways herself along with a pair of blocks. “We definitely didn’t expect to come out and win it in three [games]. We knew this was going to be a really tough match. Even if we would’ve played amazing [in Game 3], we knew that Northern was going to come back and fight just as hard.

“It just feels really good to know we got out of here in four [games].”

Both clubs needed all five games during their regular season matchup for La Plata to prevail.

Lavery added, “I told the girls we’re not going to Game 5. I hate playing five games.”

At 8 tonight, La Plata (15-2 overall) faces East Region champion Centennial of Howard County (17-0) in the 3A semifinals hosted by University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum in College Park.

La Plata is still looking for its first victory at states since beginning its current run of regional titles in 2010 after absorbing a heartbreaking Game 5 loss last year in the state semifinals against River Hill of Howard County.

The state championship is slated for 8 p.m. Friday, also inside Ritchie Coliseum.

“[All three regional titles] are thrilling to me,” Lavery said. “This one was more thrilling because it was more challenging. It’s stressful. I know Northern’s a great team. I was really proud [of my players]. They played strong. It was a huge team effort. There was not one person tonight [that was the star].”

Though La Plata’s offense provided plenty of production led by junior outside hitter Faith Laidley with a match-best 19 kills and seven more putaways from Maggie Lavery, it was the Warriors defense that made the impact plays the longer the regional final wore on.

After boasting a 26-17 upper hand in kills through the first two games, La Plata was matched by Northern in Game 3 with nine kills. Game 4 saw Northern own more kills than La Plata.

But La Plata finished with the match with 10 blocks, led by Caitlin Simmons’ three, while Northern had just three as a team.

La Plata defensive specialists Emily Subocz and Kelsey Gragan along with libero Meagan Griffiths particularly impressed their head coach with an array of digs throughout the match.

“We don’t feel like our season is completed. We really want that state title,” said Maggie Lavery, who watched her star older sister Mary and last year’s senior class put La Plata on the map the last two postseasons. “Our dream is definitely to win states. We most definitely thought it would’ve been last year [that we would win states]. This year as the season [has gone along], I have more faith in us than I ever have.”

Maggie Lavery had her best match of the year in her new position of outside hitter, according to her coach/mother after formerly playing middle hitter and right side, as she was a force at the net.

The junior added, “We have such a great bond on our team this year, more than ever. Our defense is amazing this year. I believe [our defense is better than the last two years], yeah.”

Catherine Lavery echoed, “We have great defense. That’s what we were missing last year.”

Regional runner-up again

Northern (11-6) continues to play the role of regional bridesmaid to La Plata over the last three 3A South finals, the last two times decided in four games. Two years ago when La Plata first broke through at regionals, it upset then-reigning state champion Northern in five games.

“It’s definitely hard because in years past, I would walk away not crying because I was like, ‘Oh, I have one more year.’ But this year, it’s a lot harder [because I’m a senior],” said Northern standout setter Jess Ward, headed to play at Maryland as a walk-on next year.

Ward was a member of the last team not named La Plata to win the regional title, as her Northern club went on to win the state championship in 2009.

Her hustle and will enabled Northern to surge ahead Friday in Game 3 with an 8-7 lead and never look back. La Plata made one final run to get within 20-17 before Northern’s Lisa Wood served out the rest of Game 3 with hard, well-placed balls, her final two being aces.

That momentum carried Northern to a quick start in Game 4, taking a 4-0 lead.

But La Plata battled back to tie the game at 10, and it was nail-biting intrigue the rest of the way.

Senior Naomi Underwood led Northern with 13 kills in the match, while junior teammate Lauren Nisson was also productive at the net with seven kills and two blocks. Senior Molly Anadale also had seven kills for Northern.

“We’re trying to take steps forward [as a program],” Northern head coach Beth Radford said. “I definitely think we played better this year than we did last year here [in the regional final]. Our kids have gotten a lot better as the season’s progressed.

“I don’t think we played very well in Games 1 and 2. We did a little bit more [of what we wanted] in Game 3, and Game 4 just kind of got away from us.”

Not overlooked late in Game 4 was the defensive impact by La Plata senior libero Julie Huber.

After being an All-SMAC selection last year as a starter, Huber’s role this season has decreased to coming off the bench given the team’s depth at her spot.

With Northern in front 24-23 and primed to force a Game 5, Huber was sent in and she quickly made the decision look good with a pair of clutch digs that eventually resulted in Simmons’ block to tie the score at 24.

Huber’s first dig was particularly impressive as she thwarted an ace from the talented, jump-serving skills of Ward.

“I knew I would be ready to go in when I was needed and be a clutch player,” Huber said. “I made sure I wasn’t going to let anything hit the ground. I know [Ward] well and I know she’s really good at placing the ball [on her serves]. I wasn’t going to let her get an ace on us. It feels pretty great. We’ve got a third chance at [state] semifinals, and I think we got it this year. Third time’s the charm.”

“There’s no team in SMAC that I could be happier for [than La Plata], because I love all the girls and I love their coach,” added Ward, who plays club volleyball for Catherine Lavery with a lot of the Warriors players. “It’s hard for me [to lose the regional final], but I would love to see [La Plata] win the state title because I want someone from [the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference] to win it. I definitely [think this La Plata team has a shot] because when I was a freshman, they said the same thing about our team [that won states] — that it’s a rebuilding year and they lost all their big [hitters from the year before]. When you lose the big people, every player realizes [how important they are].”

dcogle@somdnews.com