Junior middle blocker Caroline Kaye raises the state championship trophy after the Rockets defeated the Leonardtown Raiders 3-1 to win their first title in school history.
Junior middle blocker Caroline Kaye raises the state championship trophy after the Rockets defeated the Leonardtown Raiders 3-1 to win their first title in school history.
Craig Hudson

Behind hard-hitting Howard, Djordjevic, Rockets capture first state title

After the season began with a dominant 3-0 victory against Northwest HS, junior middle blocker Caroline Kaye declared the team’s ambitious goal: reaching the top. This confidence rang true for the Richard Montgomery Rockets as on Nov. 18 they defeated the Leonardtown Raiders 3-1 in the 4A State Championship, claiming the school’s first state title in girls volleyball. 

The Rockets leaped out to a quick 10-3 lead in the first set, in large part to three aces by junior and outside hitter Ema Djordjevic within the first few points. But the Rocket’s 25-23 first-set victory over the Raiders exemplified the team’s biggest strengths all year—their composure under pressure and their ability to win points from anyone on the court. 

The Rockets led 12-3 in the first set, but the Raiders quickly strung together six unanswered points to put the pressure back on RM. RM had been in a similar position in the state semifinal against Reservoir though, seeing large leads quickly vanish, but relied on their experience to remain focused and close out the set.

“It was honestly just remembering what worked and sticking to our game plan since we kind of deviated from it for a second,” Ema Djordjevic said.

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The talent across the Rocket front line was a strength all season. Ema Djordjevic averaged 10 kills per game, while junior Corinne Howard and sophomore Ellie Mitchell together led the team with 10 kills each in the title game. When in need of a momentum-shifting block, RM turned to Kaye, who stepped up with 2.2 blocks per game. The RM service game helped the Rockets impose their will all season, and freshman Ana Djordjevic finished the championship game with two aces. 

With the first set on the line, Howard came through for the Rockets with two powerful kills and a set-piece block to extinguish the Raiders’ first-set comeback hopes, enabling the Rockets to win the pivotal first set and gain early confidence and momentum. 

“I kept telling myself this is the moment we envisioned and worked so hard for all season and there was nothing left after the game,” Howard said. “There was no other option but to turn up and make the big plays.”

“There was no other option but to turn up and make the big plays.”

— Corinne Howard

After going down 9-6 early in the second set and forced to call a timeout, RM started to erase their early mistakes and play the brand of volleyball they had all season long on their way to an impressive 22-3 record. They fought back and forth with the Raiders until at a 16-16 tie, finally broke through and extended their lead to 21-17. From there, Mitchell prevented another late Raider run with a service ace, and with a powerful block from Howard, the Rockets won the second set 25-18, moving one set closer to a state championship.

The Raiders used the third set to prove that they belonged in the Class 4A championship game. Leonardtown finally woke up from their two-and-a-half-hour bus ride up to Harford Community College and started the biggest set of their season with an 8-3 lead over RM. From that small gap, the Raiders started to capitalize on their blocks and force the Rockets into easy mistakes. Leonardtown cruised to a 25-14 third-set win, but more importantly, had all the momentum going into the fourth set.

Before the game, however, RM had spent a lot of time studying not only the skills of Leonardtown but also the attitudes of their players on the court. They hoped in times like these, when it felt like the momentum wasn’t going their way, they could hone in on specific people across the net and sway the pace of the game.

“One thing specifically we noted was that one of their players had an incredible amount of energy, so we targeted her defense and picked out two players, me and Ana [Djordjevic], to have tons of energy the whole game as a way to counteract her in a way,” Howard said. 

Junior outside hitter Corinne Howard had one of the best games of her season during the state title game, finishing with 10 kills, six blocks and three digs. (Graphic by Christiana Vucea)

The fourth set started with two quick points from the Raiders, but unlike the set before, the Rockets didn’t succumb to pressure. Kaye responded with a powerful spike, and for the next few points, RM and Leonardtown exchanged skillful hits to tie the game at five apiece. It was a Howard block that had the Rockets doubled up on Leonardtown 10-5 that finally swung the game back to RM. 

“It was a matter of just recognizing that we became complacent and honestly just forgot that Leonardtown is still a great team and we need to still be getting quality touches every chance we get,” Ema Djordjevic said. “It was the final and there was nothing after that so we had to leave it all out there, and we did.”

Howard continued her standout performance deep into the fourth set, scoring four unanswered points by herself and helping expand the Rockets’ lead from five to 16. Junior Amy Ye, an unsung hero in RM’s path to a state title, combined with Kaye to finish off the Raiders with a block to send the Rockets into a tear-filled celebration at center court.

“The second the ball hit the floor everything became real and I was honestly just overwhelmed,” Ema Djordjevic said. “I knew we were capable of doing it and we had worked and prepared for so long to reach that goal, but the moment it really happens is so surreal.”

RM finished fifth in The Washington Post’s final volleyball rankings after beginning the season unranked. 

The Rockets graduate just two seniors this season: libero Casey Bradley, who was vital in the Rockets’ run to the title and led the team with 9.4 digs per game, and middle blocker Erin Kaluzienski. This means the core of the now-defending champion Rockets will remain mostly the same, but heading into next year, the team believes it will not only be more skilled but have an invaluable amount of playoff experience under their belt.

“We’re planning on [going back to states] and honestly expecting it now,” Ema Djordjevic said. “Obviously who knows what’s going to happen, but what we do know is that we have a younger team that’s only going to get better as the club season goes along. I’m super excited to see what is to come because we still have more to offer.”

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