Leesburg, Va. — Going into the VHSL Class 5 semifinal game, the Riverside High School volleyball team was facing the same opponent they had a week earlier in the VHSL Region 5D championship match. Having been pushed to five sets, and extra points in the final set, by a tough Riverbend team before eventually claiming the region title—23-25, 25-14, 20-25, 25-14, 19-17—the Rams were hoping to secure a win, as well as a trip to the state championship match, in fewer sets this time around when they met with the Bears again on November 14 in Leesburg.
“The girls said, ‘we’re not going to go five sets today,’” Riverside head coach and Potomac District Coach of the Year Reggie Cruz said. “We’re going to go after every point.”
Although they dropped the first set in a close fight, the Rams overcame the deficit to take the next three sets—23-25, 25-20, 25-19, 25-18—and punch their ticket to Richmond on November 17 for the VHSL Class 5 state championship match.
“We were up, we got too comfortable and complacent, and then lost it,” Riverside junior middle hitter Brianna Holladay said. “The next three sets we knew we wanted this. We didn’t want to have the same 19-17 fifth set that we had the last time we played them.”
Despite jumping out to an early 11-4 lead to open the match, the Rams were eventually forced to take a timeout at 15-14 after a steady Riverbend attack brought the Bears back within striking distance.
The rest of the first set featured a back-and-forth battle as each side fought for an advantage. Neither team led by more than two points down the stretch as Holladay (10 kills, 2 blocks) and Riverbend senior outside hitter Allison Lach (12 kills, 12 digs, 2 aces) traded kills in an attempt to put their team ahead.
After three straight points gave Riverside the 23-22 advantage, Riverbend used their final timeout to try to slow the momentum. It seemed to work, as the Bears were able to close out the first set and sneak away with the 25-23 victory.
“I just knew going into this that Riverbend was a great team,” Cruz said. “They don’t know how to give up. They fight really hard.”
The beginning of the second set featured five ties and three lead changes in what appeared to be a repeat of the end of the first set. But Riverbend started to pull away at 12-8, which forced a Riverside timeout. The break proved worthwhile, though, as the Rams went on a 6-0 run—behind three timely aces from sophomore setter Sydney Ray (22 assists, 13 digs, 3 aces) and kills from Holladay and sophomore right side hitter Gabbie Vizek (8 kills, 1 block)—to take the lead, 14-12.
“When we played them the first time, we had the most missed serves that we’ve ever had in any game,” Cruz said. “So the past couple days at practice it was really about serving, serve placement, and serving tough at those spots.”
The tough service pressure paired with a strong defensive effort—particularly from Riverside senior libero and Potomac District Player of the Year Natalie Carlin, who finished the night with 34 digs, 2 aces, 2 assists, and 1 kill—is what put the Rams in the driver’s seat and ultimately what kept them there. After taking over the lead midway through the set, they never let the Bears back within two points and secured a 25-20 victory.
“We definitely pushed a lot harder,” Holladay said. “We took it point by point, just couldn’t get complacent.”
Although it seemed as though Riverside had the momentum after evening the set score, Riverbend started the third set on fire with a 5-0 run, thanks to big kills from junior middle hitter Peri Linterman (13 kills, 3 digs, 1 ace, 1 block).
“She hits really quick, and she’s very good at hitting balls that are off the net,” Holladay said of Linterman. “So we had to adjust, making sure our pins could come help us block.”
While Holladay focused on quieting Linterman, the Bears put their efforts on shutting down the Riverside outside hitters. The defensive pressure from the Riverbend block made it difficult for the Riverside outsides to score in their usual ways. Although she was limited to three kills through the first two sets, junior outside hitter Simone Shaefer (9 kills, 4 digs, 1 block) started to find her groove in the third set and helped erase the early Riverbend lead.
“When we played them the first time at their home, our outsides really took over,” Cruz said. “So I think that they made the adjustment to make sure that they focused on blocking our outsides. We played one point at a time, and that’s how we got back from that five-point deficit.”
After digging themselves out of the early hole, the Rams relied on the pressure from behind the service line and their tough defense to keep them going. Riverside scored 5 of the team’s 14 aces in the third set, and the defensive play from Carlin and Ray kept long rallies alive for the Rams to force errors on the Riverbend side.
After a kill from Shaefer forced a Bear timeout at 19-16, the Rams answered with back-to-back aces from sophomore setter Kenzie Davis (14 assists, 6 digs, 3 aces) and never relinquished the lead, en route to a 25-19 set three win.
“Natalie holds us together in the back row,” Cruz said. “She can’t cover the whole court by herself. She tries, everyone tries, but when she’s back there with the other defensive specialists, they know how to work off each other and they were able to get us back in that game.”
The Rams used a balanced offense in the fourth set to jump out to a 14-10 lead, as the setters found Holladay and Vizek when Shaefer and senior outside hitter Adriana Perodin (9 kills, 7 digs, 3 aces) were being defended on the outside. Although the Bears brought the score to within one point at 15-14, the Rams maintained the lead for the rest of the set and secured the win, 25-18.
“What’s next is lots of film and very focused practices,” Holladay said.
“From the first day of tryouts I said, ‘put your hands up if you want a banner,’ and everyone yelled it out and raised their hands,” Cruz said. “So that’s the goal, that’s the mission, that’s what we want to do.”