Sam Walters said it was a "life-changing experience." Her Liberty teammate, Melissa Stansbury, called it the "most memorable moment" of her career.
Perhaps, surprisingly, that kind of lasting impression didn't come from either of the two state championship matches that the premier senior outside hitters have played in since making the varsity as sophomores. It happened in the state semifinals last season against North East of Cecil County, when Liberty pulled out a tense 25-23 victory in a marathon game that sent the Lions to the state title match.
Liberty fought off seven match points and had three match points before finally escaping with a win that set up a Liberty-Glenelg final, which was won by the Howard County school and ended a two-year state title run by Liberty. The Lions captured the state Class 2A championship in 2003 by defeating Glenelg, when Stansbury and Walters were members of the junior varsity as ninth-graders and defeated Rising Sun for the 2004 state title, before last year's loss to Glenelg.
Walters said she and Stansbury are still talking and writing about that match-deciding game against North East more than 10 months later. "We write essays in school about that game all the time. Every time we are asked by a teacher to write about an experience, I talk about that game and Melissa does the same thing. There was so much emotion and so many mood swings."
Said Stansbury: "It was a huge match for all of us. We went back and forth for 10 game points. The game went to 25 instead of 15. That was definitely the biggest moment of my career."
There have been many big moments for the 5-foot-10 Stansbury, who was a second-team All-Metro choice last season. She and Walters had combined to lead the Lions to a 41-2 record through the first five matches this season, with both losses coming during their junior seasons.
The other loss was to Thomas Johnson, ending a 49-match Liberty winning streak.
Lions coach Dave Trumbo said Stansbury is a "great passer and a great server, has tremendous hands and is a great hitter. There's nothing about her game that is weak. She's strong in every aspect."
Stansbury is serving 92 percent, with 16 aces in the first 15 games - mostly the result of her physically demanding jump-serve that can intimidate the opposition. "If we're trailing by a lot in a match, I'll just stand and serve a few points," Stansbury said. "But mostly I jump-serve the whole match."
Walters, a second-team All-County selection last season, is leading the team in kills through the first five matches, with 3.13 per game. The 5-foot-8 standout has come up through the volleyball ranks since starting in the sixth grade with Stansbury at Trumbo's middle school volleyball camp.
"They both fell in love with the game right away," Trumbo said. "Melissa started club ball in the eighth grade and Sam in the ninth. They've both played a lot of volleyball, and they're both great athletes."
The two outside hitters are the only three-year varsity players on the team and the only ones who have experienced two straight trips to the state finals. Stansbury and Walters have developed a bond on and off the court, and are two of the tri-captains for the Lions.
However, the similarities between the two end when it comes to leadership.
Walters explains the difference between the close friends. "I think she's more calm and collects everyone. She [Stansbury] cheers people up when they're down. I'm the kind of person that gets everyone pumped up and kind of like gets everything together and focused."
In short, Walters said, "I'm more straightforward while she's nice and sweet. You could say she leads by example while I just tell everyone, `OK guys, let's get together and do it.'"
It all works out, Walters said, because they complement each other and give the team what it needs to be prepared for matches.
Walters comes from an athletic family, having a brother, Dustin, who made the Pittsburgh football team as a walk-on tight end, and a sister, Paige, who is an outstanding volleyball player on the Liberty junior varsity.
Stansbury is also an All-County shot putter as a member of the Liberty indoor and outdoor track and field teams.
But volleyball is her first love now, and Stansbury has built a strong reputation.
"Sometimes, I get that feeling [that opposing teams are intimidated]" Stansbury said. "But other times I feel like other teams walk in with so much energy and excitement just with the feeling that it would be a big accomplishment to beat us. It definitely pumps me up and gets me excited to play against them. We're so much more focused when there's a lot of excitement and energy on the court."
So just how far can this Liberty volleyball team go before the Stansbury-Walters era comes to an end in November?
"I definitely think we can make it that far [state finals a fourth straight year]," Stansbury said. "I feel we are good enough to win the state. With more practice and the way we've been playing we definitely have a good shot. Our setter [Ashleigh Swiontek] is phenomenal. She knows exactly where you want the ball."
And Stansbury knows exactly what to do with Swiontek's sets in hopes of capturing a second Class 2A state championship in three years. That might not supplant last year's semifinal match against North East for pure drama, but it would create a lasting memory. firstname.lastname@example.org