HAMPSTEAD - In a battle that often came down to power vs. defense and size vs. tactics, the Centennial High School girls volleyball team was knocked out of the Class 3A Region I championship Friday by North Carroll High.
The hard-slamming Eagles from Centennial found a fatal match-up with the smaller Panthers, who proved that an opponent's strength and height can be overcome with scrambling defensive play and a little cunning.
Throughout the match, which Centennial lost, 6-15, 11-15, 15-8, 10-15, the Eagles found themselves scrambling to return shots that unexpectedly kept coming back over the net.
North Carroll, the top seed in the tournament with a 14-1 record this year, had an ax to grind with the second-seeded 13-3 Eagles, who had knocked off the Panthers in last year's playoffs.
Centennial finished the 1989 season at 20-0 and won its first state title in school history. North Carroll coach Linda Richards said she still remembers "playing pitifully" when Centennial beat her team last year.
But it wasn't a pitiful performance Friday, when the sound of fans pounding their shoes on wooden bleachers made the North Carroll High School gym shake amid the yells of "revenge."
"We knew we could play better against them than we did last year. But we came out tonight and just played plain better than we have all year," Richards said. "Everyone seemed to be playing their best game."
But whether it was revenge or just plain defensive intensity doesn't matter to the Eagles, who were out-finessed and out-blocked.
"They were everywhere. They deserved to win that game," said Laura Taneyhill, a Centennial sophomore who launched power shot after power shot at the North Carroll back line. "They covered the court so well. It was like hitting the ball against a backstop."
It was Taneyhill and teammates Carlyn Cangiano and Rebecca Hunter who put pressure on the North Carroll defense with hard-hitting shots. But Centennial, while they controlled much of the play, was unable to amass more than a four-point run throughout the match.
As with a backstop, the harder the ball went against North Carroll, the harder it seemed to come back. Throughout one stretch in the final game, amid the howls of execration by North Carroll fans, the Panthers made exceptional stops during a five-point run that put them ahead 12-9.
Serving throughout that burst was North Carroll's Sandra Johnson, whose southpaw serve gave Centennial problems throughout the night. In the second game, Johnson's serve set up the team's first five points en route to a 5-3 lead for the Panthers.
North Carroll's Robin Martin closed out that second game by serving eight straight points, turning an 11-7 Centennial lead into a 15-7 loss.
That, coupled with Centennial's shaky start in the first game, made the rest of the evening a come-from-behind contest for the Eagles.
"We didn't come out with the aggressiveness that we had last year," said Centennial coach Bill Shook. "We played a little too conservative and became predictable on offense. By the time we started to play more aggressive it was too tough to come back against them."
The comeback effort was not a disappointing one for Centennial fans, who saw the Eagles rally behind the Taneyhill sisters -- Laura and Lisa -- and 6-foot sophomore middleman Shannon Saltzman, who powered her team to its only win in the third game.
Saltzman, in her first year with the team after cheerleading in her freshman year, scored back-to-back points in the third game to give the Eagles a comfortable 12-7 lead, at a time when it appeared Centennial was building momentum.
Lisa Taneyhill led the Eagles to a 4-0 lead in the final game with hard, deep serves that for a moment seemed to handcuff the Panthers. But Martin came back with two winning serves for North Carroll to narrow the gap to 4-2.
Led by Laura Taneyhill and Saltzman, the Eagles went on to take an 8-4 lead on hard-fought points. After opening up a 9-6 lead after a Saltzman spike, Johnson put her powerful left-handed serve to work for the Panthers to make it 12-9 North Carroll.
The Panthers made it 14-9 before Hunter, Laura Taneyhill and Saltzman broke three consecutive match point serves to keep Centennial's hopes alive. Taneyhill's no-nonsense slam made it 14-10 before Martin closed out the match with a hard shot on the side baseline.