GAITHERSBURG - As Glen Burnie's Christy Hutson watched Seneca Valley's unbeaten volleyball team warm up before their Class 4A state semifinal at Watkins Mill yesterday, she made an observation that proved prophetic.
"The first thing I said is, 'they're not big,' " explained Hutson, a senior. "That was a sign that meant they must play good defense."
Against a relentless Eagles' team without a player who stood above 5-foot-7, second-seeded Glen Burnie (17-0) recovered from deficits in all three games, including its biggest of the season, 10-5, in the third game to win, 15-12, 15-12, 15-13.
The victory earned Glen Burnie's 13th-year coach Juanita Murdock-Milani her first chance at a Class 4A state title.
Glen Burnie will face top-seeded Oxon Hill (17-0) of Prince George's County, a 15-3, 15-4, 15-13 winner over fourth-seeded Springbrook of Montgomery County.
Glen Burnie was coming off last week's sub-par performance against Broadneck in which the Gophers lost their first game of the season, 19-17, before winning the Region IV title, 3-1.
But Murdock-Milani promised a better team would show up for the remainder of the state tournament, and last night, one did.
"(Seneca Valley) was digging up some balls that we thought were sure winners and they really passed the ball well," said Murdock-Milani, whose Gophers have lost just one game in 52 matches.
"But the girls learned from losing to Broadneck to be level-headed and calm and then they can come back and win. (Stacey Gilligan) was the key."
Actually, it was the power and accuracy of Gilligan (19 kills), Melanie Scharf (14) and Hutson (10) that eventually wore down the Eagles (16-1), who had lost just three games all season coming into the match.
Glen Burnie had to overcome a patient Eagles defensive game, led by diminutive setters Nikki Brassell and the Meehan sisters, Sheila and Katie, who lined up about three yards back from the net to prepare for serves.
It was a formation the Gophers were not accustomed to.
"We were nervous at first and not all of us were on today, but after a while we adjusted," said Gilligan. "At first, we really couldn't take advantage of anything. Then we started reading their blocks and getting around them."
And once the Gophers got their power going, the Eagles had no answer for them.
"They just applied so much pressure that my girls weren't responding.
That's something I couldn't predict," said second-year Seneca Valley coach Jeff Charuhas, whose Eagles were coming off of a straight-set victory over previously unbeaten Quince Orchard.
"We were doing fine defensively at first, but then we weren't playing up to our potential."
Seneca Valley's senior hitter Liz Frederick and Christine Schroeder had 89 and 62 kills, respectively, coming into the game and were pesky at the net with some aggressive blocks, an occasional dink and some off-speed hitting.
"We had to hit the floor a lot more than usual," said Scharf. "But we just kept on swinging."
Mandy Albrecht and Linda Fannin chipped in with five kills each. From the service line, Scharf (15-for-15, five aces) Gilligan (14-for-15, three) and Hutson (18-for-20) were steady.
"We knew that we couldn't just slack off or win by just standing around," said Gilligan.
Scharf said, "We were nervous at first but we got our composure back.
They hustled, but eventually, we out-hustled them and got the victory."
The Anne Arundel Community College volleyball team placed fifth out of eight teams over the weekend in the Region XX Tournament at Montgomery-Rockville.
The Pioneers, who ended the year 19-21 overall, went into the tournament as the seventh seed.
Anne Arundel lost to second-seeded Community College of Allegheny County-Boyce (Pa.) in the opener, 7-15, 9-15. The Pioneers split with third-seeded Charles County, 15-13, 0-15, before sweeping No. 6 Cecil Community College, 15-6, 15-13.
Anne Arundel coach Carol Taylor is satisfied with her team's final record, "especially considering the way we started -- 6-14."
"I'm proud of the way we finished," she said. "We stayed together as a team the whole season."
Taylor's only disappointment was Anne Arundel's inability to close the year with a .500 record. She attributes that failure to a late-season injury to freshman Jen Erlandson.
The Severna Park graduate suffered an ankle injury and missed the last four regular-season matches, including the Hagerstown Tournament on Nov. 3.
The 6-foot-3 Erlandson was a first-team All-Region selection. She and sophomore teammate Susan Nelson, of Chesapeake, also were named to the second-team All-Tournament squad.