CATONSVILLE — Normally, when a squad goes from worst to first, the improbable journey takes one year.
Severna Park's volleyball team made the climb in one night.
The Falcons (19-0) looked grossly overmatched in losing the firstgame of the Class 4A state finals against Northern (17-1) of CalvertCounty. But a change in strategy and attitude keyed a 3-1 Severna Park victory at Catonsville Community College on Saturday.
"We weren't playing like a team in the first game," said Falcons coach Tim Dunbar, who won his first state title and the school's third. "We were playing like six individuals."
Six scared individuals, thanks to Northern senior Kristin Kruse, widely regarded as the premiere player in the state.
Though listed at 5-foot-11, Kruse rivaled the Sears Tower when going up for one of her thunderous spikes. She finished with 20 kills, including six in an opening game won easily by the Patriots, 15-6.
"We sort of put her on a pedestal," admitted Falcons senior April Kaiser, who had a team-high eight kills. "Even the coach was saying how she was the best in the state.
"We wanted to get downlow and dig, but we'd close our eyes and back off. We were intimidated."
Clearly unable to match Northern's power early on, the Falcons instead concentrated on location, hitting cross court, rather than down the middle and sides.
"Plus, we missed fewer serves and flubbed fewer passes," Dunbar said.
With their accuracy and confidence returned, Severna Park took the next three games, 15-10, 15-7, 15-5.
Kruse became less of a factor as the match wore on. Her spikes frequently were blocked at the net, and the Patriots' setters had trouble getting her the ball.
"When we got up, we could see her getting down," said Falcons junior Jaime Pirotte, who was 17-of-18 serving, with three aces.
"I told them once we started playing better, they wouldn't get as many easy shots," Dunbar said.
Severna Park juniorKate Marks (four kills, three blocks) said the Falcons were "just too excited" at the start.
"After the first game, we just wanted to get everything in and play under control. We had to pull together," she said.
The momentum shifted slowly. Northern led 4-0 and 10-6 inthe second game, before Severna Park rallied for the 15-10 win.
An ace from Marks closed the second game, and the Falcons steamrollered through the last two.
The entire match lasted 1 hour, 10 minutes.
"We knew the reason we lost the first game was we weren't playing well," said sophomore Jen Conner (three kills, four blocks), who had been weakened by a virus.
"We were really nervous, mainly because we were in the states and we didn't know what to expect."
The Patriots did, having won the 3A state title last season and building a 35-match winning streak going into Saturday's play. And they looked the part of a champion in the beginning, needing only 15 minutes to win the first game.
"It's pretty ironic that we came back," junior Catherine Kirk said. "We felt Mr. Dunbar was disappointed in us.
"We weren't showing any intensity."
Their intensity level nearly burst through the gymnasium roof in the fourth game, when with Kirk serving, they scored nine straight points to lead, 12-2.
Kirk was 22-of-22 serving and had five blocks. Senior Cassandra Melton was 13-of-14 serving and had five kills.
"I knew when we were up, 10-2. We were going to win, we were so charged up," Kirk said. "And I think theyknew it, too."
Northern coach Cheryl Lord called two timeouts during the run, which included an ace, two Kaiser kills and one Conner kill.
"If we had to lose to somebody, it may as well have been Severna Park. They're a great team," Lord said.
And they have a state title to prove it.