SHILOH — There’s a lot to like about Queen Anne’s County High’s volleyball team.
First-year head coach Nevada Bitter’s crew vigorously dives for digs, communicates and covers the court well, and hammer kills as if trying to permanently dent the floor on the other side of the net.
What can get easily lost among all that digging, talking and spiking is the Lions’ talent for keeping their cool. That was evident Tuesday night, as North Dorchester whittled healthy deficits to just one point in Games 2 and 3, only to watch Queen Anne’s calmly pull away to complete a 25-15, 25-20, 25-19 victory for their first Bayside Conference championship since 2016.
“They are the mentally strongest team I’ve ever had,” Bitter said after Queen Anne’s improved to 15-0 with its 11th sweep of the season. “When we played Kent Island (in the regular-season finale Oct. 26) we were down by two (games) and came back and won three. I never had a doubt in my mind that these girls wouldn’t win (tonight).”
Playing in its first conference volleyball championship in school history, North Dorchester (14-2) just missed a perfect regular season when it let a 2-0 lead get away in a 3-2 regular-season-ending loss to Stephen Decatur last week. But the Eagles looked to have put that behind them as they went back and forth with the Lions in Game 1, which featured six ties.
Queen Anne’s started building a gap in Game 1, when Brooke Tolson put down one of her six kills for a 12-7 Lions lead. But North Dorchester closed within 12-11 behind the serving of Anna Hopkins, prompting a Lions timeout. Hopkins dropped in an ace to knot the game at 12-all, then watched Queen Anne’s return her next serve into the net for a 13-12 Eagles lead that had the home crowd roaring.
Queen Anne’s tied the match at 13-13, then went back and forth before reaching the sixth and final tie at 15-15. The Lions took over from there, as Autumn Huber went on a 10-point service run — that included a monster kill from Baillie Pinder — giving Queen Anne’s a 1-0 lead.
“They placed their hits really well, probably better than any team we’ve faced this year for sure,” North Dorchester head coach Carol Hubbard said of the Lions. “Early on they were hitting a lot of cross-court shots and our girls adjusted really, really well to that. We started getting those shots up and then they started taking some line shots and taking the middle.
“The middle hits, when they are able to cut them short, are really hard to cover, because if you go up to cover them you’re leaving your whole back open,” Hubbard continued. “We got some of them up, but we didn’t adjust as quickly as we needed to.”
Milan Jiggetts’ winner and an errant Lions return gave the Eagles a 2-0 lead in Game 2. The lead seesawed before reaching 7-7, where Queen Anne’s again gained separation on Brooke Tolson’s four-point service run that included one of her three aces for a 12-7 lead.
The Lions extended their cushion to a modest 17-11, then saw it shrink courtesy of Maggie Hubbard’s mini-service run, a Mackenzie Lewis ace, and a Jiggetts winner. A rare bit of miscommunication by Queen Anne’s got North Dorchester within 19-18, again firing up Eagle fans.
But Queen Anne’s remained poised, and scored six of the last eight points for the 25-20 Game 2 win.
“We work a lot on allowing mistakes,” Bitter said. “This day in age they think they have to be perfect and they don’t allow themselves to make mistakes. So I just pushed, ‘You’re not going to grow and learn if you’re not failing and trying.’
“They know when they mess up. I don’t need to tell them,” Bitter continued. “I’m not here to coach them. I do that during practice. They know when they make mistakes. We worked a lot on them figuring it out on the court themselves this year.”
Emily Freeman’s serve helped the Eagles to another early lead at 3-1 in Game 3. Queen Anne’s rallied behind a four-point serving spree from Kayce Titus for a 9-5 lead. Brooke Tolson’s ace and a failed return stretched the Lions’ advantage to 12-6.
Again, North Dorchester shaved its deficit to one at 12-11. And again, Queen Anne’s stayed calm, widening its advantage to 22-13 on a Pinder kill.
“We had confidence that we were going to win,” said Pinder, who finished with four kills, two blocks and four digs. “We just trust each other and know that we’re going to play our game. And if we get down it’s going to bring everything down. We just don’t let it (opposing rallies) rattle us.”
Back-to-back aces from Maggie Hubbard got North Dorchester within 23-16. The Eagles closed within 24-18 when Bitter called a timeout.
“I wanted to have one more timeout before they were Bayside champs,” Bitter said with a wide grin.
The Lions returned a Lewis serve into the net, pulling North Dorchester within five. But the Eagles drove a return into the net on the following point, sealing the Lions’ six-point Game 3 win.
“I think we have the confidence that we know we’re a good team, and we’ve worked hard this whole season to prepare for these sorts of games,” said Lions junior outside hitter Caroline Taylor, who finished with team-high nine kills to go with six digs and four aces. “We’ve had a great season so far and I’m so excited to continue and go far this year.”
The No. 1 seed in the 2A East Region II playoffs, Queen Anne’s is off until Nov. 7, when it will host the North Caroline-Parkside winner.
North Dorchester is the top seed in the 1A East Region II bracket and plays the Colonel Richardson-Snow Hill winner on Nov. 9 for the section title.
“This was a great game for us going into playoffs,” Carol Hubbard said. “Queen Anne’s is a much bigger school than us but it’s great to have this kind of competition heading into playoffs. We know we’re going to face tough teams, especially if we win regionals and make it across bridge.”
Notes: Titus had a team-high 11 digs for Queen Anne’s, and Brooke Tolson and Huber each had nine. … Elyse Tolson led the Lions with 11 assists. ... It was Queen Anne’s fourth conference championship.
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