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Leopards take spot -- as state champions

Smithsburg finishes unbeaten to reach pinnacle in Class 1A pinnacle

Smithsburg finishes unbeaten to reach pinnacle in Class 1A pinnacle

November 21, 2009|By CHRIS CARTER

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    COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- America's oldest ultramarathon was run in Washington County on Saturday. At the same time, the Smithsburg volleyball team wrapped up its marathon of a season in grand fashion.

    The undefeated Leopards waltzed into the Ritchie Coliseum and made quick work of Maryland Class 1A North champion Catoctin, using a versatile attack to stake a 25-16, 25-16, 25-18 sweep for their sixth state championship.

    "Coming off a 10-6 season last year I always saw the potential in them," said Smithsburg coach Rachel Brashear of her 19-0 squad. "I saw something special in them from the very beginning and when it was their time I knew they had the potential to go all the way. They surpassed every expectation."

    The Leopards took home their first championship since winning back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.

    "It's the greatest feeling in the world," said junior outside hitter Sara Rishell, who slammed 23 kills on the biggest of stages. "I've always dreamed about it. ... It's everything I thought it would be."

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Rishell did better than her gaudy 6.1 kills per game average. Propped up by junior setter Taylor Belella, Rishell set the tone with eight kills in Game 1. But the 6-foot-2 attack specialist had plenty of help as Katie Sprecher -- another junior -- had five of her 12 kills in the opening game.

That imposing offense more than enough to ease any thoughts of a possible letdown after the Leopards allowed only 10 points in its semifinal sweep of Surrattsville. Catoctin (7-12), confident after fighting through the North region despite a 3-11 regular season, was the ultimate underdog.

"Catoctin has heart, but so do we. Catoctin has talent, but so do we," Rishell said. "We just had that feeling that everything was going to be OK."

After dropping the opening point on an error by Rishell, Smithsburg buckled down. Rishell redeemed herself immediately with a powerful kill to hand the serve over to senior Paige Decker. The Leopards libero took charge by serving up seven straight points to give the Leopards control of the game -- and seemingly the match.

"I was already confident in serving," said Decker, who finished with 14 service points and an ace. "When I run up the points I feel really good about myself because the defense is set up."

Once the serve was in, the Smithsburg attack took over. The Leopards had 51 kills -- 40 on assists from Belella -- compared to just 10 kills for Catoctin. Belella, who extended a tournament rally-scoring record with 14 aces -- she had 12 in the semifinals -- also had 10 digs.

"She's definitely the playmaker of the team. We don't have another setter so all we have is a 5-1 formation," Rishell said. "She's really smart and we're lucky to have her on the team."

Another beneficiary of Belella's accurate setting was senior Colleen Black, who chipped in with eight kills. Five of those came during an eight-point run in Game 2 that gave the Leopards a 21-8 lead.

"We played Catoctin in the regular season so we had a lot of confidence. We knew we could beat them," Black said. "This is a great way to end the season. ... Never lost as a senior."

Only Decker and Mallory Petty can also say that phrase -- at least for now. The Leopards are expecting to return 10 of the state championship players for the 2010 season.

"It's bittersweet because we had such a fantastic season," Brashear said. "This is the best group of girls I've coached."

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