The moment the Patriots from Thomas Johnson took the floor against Centennial in the final of the Class 3A Region III volleyball playoffsFriday, they must have sensed they were in for a long night.
It took the top-seeded Eagles, led by their imposing front-line of Shannon Saltzman and Carly Cangiano, less than an hour to rout the Patriots, 15-8, 15-2, and 15-9. The team (17-0) advances to Wednesday's state semifinals against the winner of Douglass vs. McDonough at LaPlata High School.
"I told my girls, 'I think we just played the team that will be state champs,' " said Patriots coach Susan Mason.
The contrast between the two teams was startling. Thomas Johnson (13-4), the Frederick County champion, was making its first appearance in a regional playoff. The team faced imposing competition: a school whose volleyball tradition includes five county championships, three regional titles, and one state title. Who wouldn't be a little awe-struck?
"I see Frederick County exactly as we were (in 1984)," said Eagles coach Bill Shook. "It's a building phase. They're getting better. They're playing better teams."
"I think teams are a little intimidated when they come in here," added Centennial's Laura Taneyhill.
The Patriots didn't come out of the gate as if they were intimidated, however. Led by their two All-Conference selections -- Suzi Harper and Vrlynda Wilkes -- they jumped out to a 7-4 lead.
"We're more into playing a power vs. power game," explained Saltzman, who had four kills and three blocks. "They play more of a finesse game, what we call 'slimeball.' "
The Eagles quickly adjusted. After a side-out they reeled off nine straight points on Taneyhill's serve en route to a 15-8 victory.
Game two provided more of the same. After an ace by Centennial's Mary Hannah tied the score at 2-2, the Eagles reeled off 13 straight points for the victory. Further compounding the Patriots' miseries was the fact that they were guilty of four faults andthree net violations in the game.
Game three could almost be called a formality. The Patriots were simply not going to beat a team with Centennial's tradition. Not on their home floor.
"In seven or eight days, most of my girls will be playing basketball," said Mason. "These girls play year-round. They constantly have a strong six-man rotation. There's just no break."
The Patriots tried. Harper, held to just two kills the entire evening, came up with one to help Thomas Johnson draw even at 5-5. But two kills and a block by Saltzman, and two more kills by Sandy Palasek helped the Eagles to an 8-0 spurt before they finally loosened the reins a bit to win, 15-9.
Although no one player stood out, Cangiano, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, gave opponents a grim look at the future with four kills and two blocks.
"I'm used to playing with people older than me," she said. "Actually, I like it better."
For Centennial, the future, as always, is now. Thomas Johnson is yet another school trying to reach that pinnacle.
"It's sort of like going to Wilde Lake to play football," said Shook ofhis school's perennial excellence. "It helps to have that history and tradition."