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COLLEGE PARK — Their ear-to-ear smiles as they entered the post-match press conference Tuesday night really said it all before they ever uttered a word, expressing the joy — and relief — of finally getting over the weighty hump of the Class 3A state semifinals.
That same press conference setting has been anything but a happy experience for the La Plata Warriors the past three volleyball postseasons, which ended disappointedly in the state semifinals after the team seemed primed in each of those playoffs to advance to 3A final.
The fourth straight time in the state semifinals proved to be the charm for La Plata as it defeated Bel Air of Harford County in straight sets, 25-16, 25-20 and 25-16 at the University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum. The Warriors (18-0 overall) have now won 54 of 56 possible sets this year.
Prevailing against Bel Air (15-4) advances La Plata to the program’s first state final, playing a talented opponent in Damascus of Montgomery County at 7:30 p.m. Saturday for the Maryland crown back at Ritchie Coliseum.
“We were ready to come in and play our hardest,” La Plata senior outside hitter Faith Laidley said, insinuating that the program’s past demons in the state semifinals were not in her team’s psyche.
“[Almost] all of us have been here before,” added La Plata senior outside hitter Maggie Lavery, who had a match-best 15 kills and just three errors in her 30 total attacks for a .400 attack percentage. “Our passing has been the strongest it’s been, and definitely our defense was the best we’ve played in a while,”
Laidley, also capable of taking over a match with her explosive ability at the net, finished with six kills against Bel Air while matching junior libero Kelsey Gragan and junior right side Desi Proffitt with a team-high 10 digs.
“Our defense was really strong,” Laidley echoed. “Without Kelsey Gragan – she was all over the court – I don’t think we would’ve been able to get this far.”
“It’s nice to finally come in here and show what La Plata is about,” La Plata head coach Catherine Lavery said about conquering an elusive win at the state semifinals. “For [the last] three years, we’ve been coming in here [to the state semifinals and lost], and people have been looking at us like, ‘Well, have you been playing great competition?’ or ‘You look terrible.’ You could just feel the [negative] tone.
“It’s nice to prove we are a great team. I’m glad [my players] could show people how great they are. There were no nerves this time.”
She then added, “It’s a big relief, though.”
La Plata hopes to send its beloved coach out on the ultimate of winning notes.
Catherine Lavery — the architect of building La Plata into a state power in her six years at the team’s helm by overcoming the Calvert County juggernauts that had long dominated the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference before her arrival to the Warriors — will be coaching her final match for La Plata in Saturday’s state championship as she and her family are moving to Northern Virginia once this school year is complete.
“It’s going to be very hard,” she said about leaving La Plata. “I love it at La Plata. It’s a wonderful school.”
With Maggie Lavery graduating later this school year, her mom will have coached her second standout daughter through a celebrated La Plata career. Maggie Lavery is joining her older sister, Mary, who led La Plata to its first two state semifinals in 2010 and 2011, on the college volleyball team of Division II California University of Pennsylvania next year.
“I think we’re here [at states] to play for her, honestly,” Laidley said about the drive to a win state title for her accomplished coach. “Our team has been through a lot this season, but I think we’ve really come together these past few weeks. It’s time to play for Coach. She dedicates herself to us.”
Senior middle hitter Chanel Motley, who led La Plata with a solo block and an assisted block while also registering three kills in the state semifinals, added, “We’ve got to put it all out [and leave] our hearts on the court [in the state final].”
No more state semifinals doldrums
La Plata never trailed in the opening set against Bel Air, jumping out to a 6-2 lead on the strength of a pair of kills from Maggie Lavery and two service aces by junior setter Mia Griffiths. Bel Air crept to within 14-13 before La Plata pulled away in Game 1.
“Mia was able to put the ball right into our hands [with her sets], so it made it a lot easier to put it down,” Maggie Lavery said.
Griffiths’ 24 assists and four service aces were match bests.
“I felt like after we won Game 1, it was like a great relief for me because this is my first time playing in [the state] semis, and I’ve been nervous all day because of the whole recent history of La Plata here,” Griffiths said.
La Plata started the second set on a 5-1 run. Then Bel Air countered with a 9-2 surge. La Plata responded with an 8-1 counterpunch, only to see Bel Air tie the set at 16 with a 5-0 run. But La Plata dealt the finishing blow in the second set with a 10-4 run, capped with Laidley effectively killing the ball from the back line on set point like she had done earlier in the set to give the Warriors a 13-11 lead.
“Maggie played really well on the front row, and Faith just was amazing again today on the front row and then on the back row,” Catherine Lavery said.
Laidley served the first seven points of the final set, including a pair of aces, pushing La Plata out to a comfortable lead it never relinquished. Maggie Lavery unloaded a kill to set up her matching-ending service ace to keep La Plata’s state-title hopes alive and well.
Bel Air was led by senior outside hitter Celeste Roland with a team-high nine kills on the night.
Now, La Plata is gearing for Damascus (15-3), which took out fellow state hopeful Glenelg (20-2-1) in a thrilling five-setter preceding La Plata’s victory against Bel Air. Damascus won the final two sets to clinch the trip to the state final, including a 15-12 win in Set 5.
“We need to fix our blocking a little bit on our timing and get our middles more involved,” the La Plata coach said about what her team needs to improve upon from the state semifinals. “[Motley] had a wonderful blocking game [in the state semifinals], but we did not utilize her [or our other middle hitter Caitlin Simmons] at all at hitting. I can’t wait for people to see what they can do in the middle, hitting-wise.”
Laidley added about Damascus, “They’re definitely a strong team. We can’t go out there goofing off. We’ve got to know they want it just as bad as we want it.”
“We just need to fix a few key details and we’ll be fine,” Maggie Lavery said about how much better La Plata has to play to beat Damascus for the state title.
La Plata (18-0) vs. Damascus (16-2)
What: Class 3A state volleyball championship
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum, College Park
La Plata 3, Bel Air 0
Bel Air 16 20 16
La Plata 25 25 25