The high school volleyball teams from Centennial and Atholton hardly resemble the powerhouses that played on a higher level than the rest of the county last fall before charging to respective state titles.
And yet, the Eagles and Raiders still know how to stage an entertaining match, as they proved Tuesday night during Centennial's exciting 15-3, 14-16, 15-8, 14-16, 15-12 victory.
The match didn't begin on a particularly engrossing note. Centennial quickly brought its new-look team and its impressive 32-match winning streak to bear on the visiting Raiders. For the first 20 minutes Atholton looked ready to make an early exit while the Eagles reeled off 24 of the first 28 points.
But as quickly as you can say "blowout," the Eagles began having problems with one of the most dependable phases of their game -- serving.
Atholton responded by breaking out of its doldrums with inspired net play and great serving of its own.
The result was a five-game, see-saw battle in which the Raiders put together improbable comebacks in both of its 16-14 victories -- the first games lost by Centennial this season. Fittingly, the Eagles (6-0) kept their perfect season going by rallying from a five-point deficit to win the deciding game.
The Raiders, who were coming off a tough five-game loss to Glenelg, saw their record fall to 3-2.
Centennial coach Bill Shook, who had just celebrated his 100th career victory against Hammond, thought the Eagles were headed quickly for No.
101. Centennial dominated the net in a 15-3 opening-game victory that put the Raiders on the run. The Eagles then jumped out to a 9-1 lead in the second game.
"If we would've taken them in the second game, I think they would have folded in the third," Shook said. "Then we stopped serving. Then we started to question ourselves. Our service is the reason we've been winning matches 3-0 all year. We haven't served as poorly this year as we did then."
The Eagles were actually pretty proficient with their service (86 percent success rate), but Atholton pounced on their occasional sloppiness and turned the match around with some great serves in that second game.
Kelly Smith, who continues to improve as an all-around player, sparked the Raiders with two aces to get the comeback started. By the match's end, Smith would lead the team in aces (5) and kills (7).
After Atholton closed to within 9-6 and lost its service, Marney Treese (four aces, five kills) regained it with a hard crosscourt spike. The Raiders then scored seven straight points -- thanks mainly to three aces by Amy Shellenberger -- to complete a shocking 12-point run and take a 13-9 lead.
Centennial battled back to tie the game at 14-14 on successive kills by Shannon Saltzman (a team-leading nine), but Mary Bolduc's spike after a great save by Treese put the game away for Atholton.
The Eagles regrouped to take an 8-2 lead in the third game, but held off two rallies before pulling away to a deceivingly tough 15-8 victory.
Then, just as Centennial took a 13-7 lead in game four and appeared to have control of the match again, Atholton stunned them again with a five-point run to make it 13-12.
Jenn Herrmann's wicked spike off a perfect set by Sezin Omer gave Centennial breathing room and a 14-12 lead. The Raiders, however, got the last word, a four-point run punctuated by two aces from Smith. And for the first time since their second match against Atholton last season, Centennial was forced to play a fifth game.
The game didn't start well for the Eagles. Atholton, sensing an upset, carried its momentum to an 8-3 lead.
But Sang Kim, Laura Taneyhill and Sandy Palasek stepped forward to play superbly in the clutch to lead Centennial's comeback. Kim set well and made several outstanding defensive plays, Palasek reeled off three straight aces to tie it at 8-8, and Taneyhill's successive kills gave the Eagles a 13-10 lead they wouldn't lose.
"We showed a lot of heart," said Atholton coach Jon Peterson. "We're five points away from being undefeated, but instead we're 3-2. We played a terrible first game, but we didn't quit and that's a good sign. It's important for a young team like us to have confidence and we picked some up."
The Eagles also won again with youth. Saltzman, a 6-0 sophomore, was a cheerleader last year and is playing volleyball for the first time. Omer, Palasek (five aces) and Laura Taneyhill (three aces, seven kills) are sophomores. Herrmann (seven kills) is a junior. Even freshmen Carlyn Cangiano (five kills) contributed some big plays.
Combine them with seniors Kim, Rebecca Hunter (five kills) and Jennifer Hernandez -- all members of last year's state championship team -- and it's not hard to figure out why the Eagles are still the team to beat in the county.
They'll take their biggest test of the season Tuesday when they host senior-laden Mount Hebron, which took an undefeated record into its match against Atholton Friday night.