Like heavyweights in a championship fight, the Severna Park and Northern volleyball squads will take center court at Catonsville Community College tomorrow night.
There, they'll slug it out for the Class4A state title.
"I couldn't think of a better matchup," Northern coach Cheryl Lord said of the 7:30 p.m. match. "The teams are similar, and probably the biggest similarity is hitting. Both teams can hit big and with a lot of control."
Lord's third-seeded Patriots of Calvert County (17-0) return four senior starters and eight players overall from last year's Class 3A state champion squad.
Senior Division I prospect Kristin Kruse, a 5-foot-11 hitter, has 214 kills, serves 86 percent (60aces) and leads a Northern squad that owns a 35-game winning streak.
But top-seeded Severna Park (18-0) knows a little about breaking streaks. The Falcons were 11-0 a year ago when Glen Burnie, last year's 4A champ, snapped their regular-season winning streak at 87. The Falcons finished with a 12-3 record.
"Even though we're the No. 1 seed, Northern is probably favored and may be under more pressure," said Severna Park coach Tim Dunbar, whose Falcons have won eight countytitles and five Class 4A Region IV crowns since 1985. "For their seniors, this is the last shot at another state title."
Northern alsostarts two freshmen -- setter Kelly Shipman, a 90 percent server, and 5-9 middle hitter Lisa Kline.
"In terms of pressure," Dunbar said, "I think those two will see the most."
Pressure certainly will be applied by the Falcons' two starting seniors, 5-9 hitter April Kaiser (155 kills) and 5-7 hitter Cassandra Melton (98). Middle blockersCatherine Kirk, a 5-11 junior, and Jen Conner, a 5-9 sophomore, eachhas 83 kills. Kirk has a team-leading 79 blocks.
While Kaiser vs.Kruse shapes up as an explosive and intriguing battle of individuals, the war likely will be won by the supporting cast of the best team.
"You can expect Kruse will be pounding the ball on the floor a lot. She's the best in the state, and if we were to shut her down, we'dbe going beyond our expectations," Dunbar said.
"But every team has weaknesses, and we'll just have to try and exploit theirs. We knowthey're going to play the ball to Kruse, so we may have to find a way to keep them from getting it there."
Northern also has senior Anna Gibbs, Kruse's 5-9 front-line mate, who brings 94 kills and 88 blocks into the fray. At 92 percent with 28 aces, senior Nora Penn, a 5-5 outside hitter, is the Patriots' best server. Courtney Myers, a 5-7offhand hitter, is a defensive specialist.
For the Falcons, junior co-captain Kate Marks (5-10) has 75 kills, and junior outside hitter Lori Sharpless (5-9) has 23.
While Shipman runs the Patriots' 5-1 offense, junior setter Jaime Pirotte (442 assists) gets the Falconsgoing.
Entering Tuesday's 3-0 semifinal victory over fourth-seeded Laurel, Pirotte (20 kills) had converted 87 percent of her serves with 47 aces. She is followed by Kaiser (93.1 percent, 25 aces), Kirk (87, 43), Conner (84, 33) and Melton (82, 27).
Melton, Kirk, Pirotte and Marks were on the bench when the Falcons finished as state runners-up three years ago.
Northern and Severna Park met in an informal preseason scrimmage, but "it was just for about 20 minutes or so,and we both played all of our different players," Lord said.
"They're obviously playing with much more consistency now, and they didn't have Melton playing all around the court like she does," Lord said."But I have a lot of confidence in my team."
As well she should, especially after the way the Patriots rebounded in Tuesday's five-game marathon victory over second-seeded Quince Orchard (16-1), which had won 31 of its previous 32 matches. After falling behind two games to none, the Patriots built an 11-4 lead in the third game and faced match point seven times before winning, 22-20.
"They totally destroyed Quince Orchard's confidence with that game," Dunbar said of the Patriots, who easily swept the final two games and the 2 1/2-hour match, 15-9 and 15-8, behind Kruse (29 kills) and Gibbs (11).
But comebacks are nothing new to the Patriots, who lost their first game to Region IV runner-up Broadneck in the regular season before winning thematch in four games. And they were down, 11-0, against Southern Maryland Athletic Conference rival McDonough in a regular-season, three-game win.
"Psychologically, Quince Orchard was an excellent game toget us prepared for the state championship," Lord said. "We played with heart and showed a lot of composure."
The Falcons, conversely,took just an hour to finish off Laurel in three games.
Players from Northern and Severna Park are friends during the off-season who play club and summer league ball together. Gibbs and Kruse, as well as Severna Park's Kirk, Marks and the Sharpless twins, Lori and Suzi, all have competed together with the Capitol Volleyball Club.
"I coached Kruse as an eighth-grader and even coached Anna (Gibbs) in 18-and-under ball this past June," Dunbar said.
"When we got off the airplane coming back from our last tournament, she gave me a big hug andsaid, 'See you at the state championships.' So I guess this is the way it should be."