Turns out the hardest part was simply getting here for the Fort Hill Sentinels.
Winning the state championship wasn’t nearly as difficult as winning the region championship. It can be that way when there’s a nine-time state champion in your region.
Who knows how many volleyball state championship trophies might be in the Fort Hill trophy case if it weren’t for those Smithsburg Leopards.
One thing is for sure. There’s a brand new, shiny one headed for that trophy case today after the Sentinels won their first volleyball state title Saturday night with a convincing three-set sweep of Carver A&T.
“I’m really proud of the girls and I’m proud of the program at Fort Hill. We’ve had a lot of good teams and this is just part of the program and what it represents,” said coach Joey Brewer, after his team had beaten Carver and Perryville in the state tournament by a combined 150-95 score. “It’s great for our school and the community.”
Few could argue that Fort Hill wasn’t favored to win the state tournament when the four teams arrived at the University of Maryland for the semifinals on Thursday. Most had heard the Sentinels were undefeated, and even more knew they had knocked off the four-time defending champion Leopards in the West Region championship match.
So what happened at Ritchie Coliseum almost seemed anti-climactic.
“For us, getting out of the region is the big thing,” said Brewer, who has a 157-43 record in 12 years as coach at Fort Hill. “So many of our teams have been so close, and all those times when we lost in the region finals we really felt we were the second best team in the state. But we were just region finalists.
“We needed to win this,” he said of the state title. “I’ve been getting texts from former players and they’re just as happy as the kids on this year’s team. It makes you feel good.”
Fort Hill’s perfect regular season gave the Sentinels home court for the rematch with Smithsburg in the region final. The Sentinels won 3-2 to end the Leopards 22-match postseason winning streak and earn a trip to the state tournament. Smithsburg had beaten Fort Hill in the West Region final the previous four years and went on to win the state title each time.
“I felt like once we got past Smithsburg, then we had the confidence to get where we are today,” three-year starter Sarah Lowery said moments after Saturday’s win. “Smithsburg was our biggest opponent and most likely will always be our biggest opponent.”
Perhaps the only thing that could have derailed the Sentinels was a bad case of butterflies in the first MPSSAA state championship appearance in school history.
“I don’t think we were nervous,” said Erin Amoruso. “You never know what to expect when you’re playing a team that you’ve never really seen before. We tried to control the ball on our side of the net and ended up doing what we needed to do.”
If the players looked loose and relaxed, they may have just been following the lead of their coach. No one looked more at ease than Brewer, who sat on a chair at the end of the Fort Hill sideline, legs crossed and appearing to not have a worry in the world just 10 minutes before the championship match. He didn’t have to worry during the match, either.
“I feel like they are prepared. They know what to do,” he said. “My goal as a coach is to make sure they know what they are doing so that when they go out there on the court they don’t really need me. I want them to be themselves on the court and play together as a team.”
There was no doubt the Sentinels did that.
“I think the big reason we’ve been successful is our closeness,” said Haley Wolfe. “We are so close, have been together since our freshman year and we’ve bonded so well. We’re a real close team.”
“We’re pretty much like a family,” Sierra Minnick added.
The family that plays well together is now celebrating together, with lots of friends.
“Going undefeated wasn’t what we were aiming to do but we wanted to beat every team,” said Rachel Alderton. “It was about a group effort every single game. We took it one game at a time and got the job done each time.”
And then they checked each one off their list.
“We were really excited coming into the games, the semifinals and finals, and we took it one game at a time,” said Troie York. “As coach would always tell us, ‘that’s one check mark, two more to go. One check mark, one more to go.’ We checked everybody off. It was nerve-racking but we did it, and we’re proud of each and every person.”
All 12 Sentinels played and contributed in the state championship game win. Lowery and Amoruso had nine kills, Wolfe 25 assists, Alderton six kills, Minnick 14 points and six aces, Bailey Godlove five kills, Danielle Hershiser four kills and York three.
“This team has worked really hard, and when I think of this team I think of hard work and unitedness,” said Brewer. “They’ve been a team from Day 1. They really like each other and it shows. That’s something you don’t always get all the time with teams.
“I’ve had a lot of good teams and this team’s probably the most unselfish. They don’t care who gets the glory or who’s hitting or getting more sets than the other. That’s really important in volleyball.
“We’ve had some adversity and had two injuries to major starters. Sarah Lowery and Erin Amoruso both missed three games. When that happened we brought up Bailey Godlove, a sophomore, and it really gave her experience and it also allowed other people to step up and do something in leadership roles that they may not have done. When you look back at the season, the adversity made us better.”
Now, it’s all history. The good kind.
“I’ll remember a lot from this day,” Wolfe said. “The game point, hearing our names called out, singing the fight song ... But it’s bittersweet, too. It’s great, but it was my last game.”
Few athletes win their final games. The Fort Hill 6 — Lowery, Wolfe, Alderton, Amoruso, Minnick and York — did just that. And no one, not even Smithsburg, could stop them from doing it.
Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. Write to him at email@example.com .