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Nicole Mallus scores a point vs. Herndon

The McLean Highlanders swept the Herndon Hornets in the Liberty District championship match for girls varsity volleyball October 28, narrowly winning all three sets by scores of 25-23, 25-22 and 25-21. It was McLean’s 19th straight win this season and their first district championship win since 2001. 

Both teams were bolstered by all-district players. For McLean, junior Charlotte Carson and sophomore Alice Holoubek were named second team all-district, and seniors Nicole Mallus and Ella Park were first team all-district. For Herndon, senior Katie Cazenas and junior Phoebe Adams were awarded second team all-district, and senior Akasha Anderson was named first team all-district and crowned Liberty District player of the year. 

“I didn’t play my junior year and was injured my sophomore year,” Anderson said. She has committed to play volleyball at Auburn University. “It felt really good to come back my senior year and win it.” Anderson is “one of the most phenomenal athletes I have ever seen,” Herndon Coach Jessica Tramontozzi added. “She fully embodies that award. It’s been a long time coming.” 

The teams played at McLean High School, where an enthusiastic crowd of students showed up to support both teams. “We’ve never had this many people show up to our games,” Anderson said. “It’s been fun to show people that volleyball is a fun sport to watch and it’s not just football or basketball.” 

The first point went to McLean, though neither team would decisively hold the upper hand in any of the three sets. Anderson served as the tip of the spear for the Hornets throughout, with McLean’s Mallus playing a standout game as well. 

Whenever either team would go on a run, as McLean did midway through the first set, the other would adjust and return the favor. “I’m really proud of the girls for staying calm under pressure, particularly when Herndon went on run,” McLean coach Samantha Stewart said after the game. “It can be hard to stay confident when you have a gun like Akasha on the other side of the net.”

The Hornets seemed ready to dominate the end of the first set until the Highlanders buckled down, arresting a Herndon run to 20 points and creeping into the lead 22-21. After the next two points went to McLean, Herndon was determined to fight until the end, making the score 24-23 until a point for McLean concluded the first set. 

A strong start to the second set for the Hornets was promptly reversed by the Highlanders. McLean would go on to lead Herndon for much of the set, interrupted by a few ties and a brief 17-18 lead for the Hornets. The teams fought with intensity, featuring numerous diving saves on both sides and balls ricocheting off the ceiling that were kept in play. 

With the score at 24-22 in the Highlanders favor, McLean closed out the second set with an ace serve by sophomore Caitlyn Lee.

With two already under their belt, the Highlanders headed into the final set confident, the Hornets determined to make their mark. Both teams took turns leading, with Herndon gaining momentum after tying the score at 14-14 and picking up a three-point lead. 

The Highlanders were able to tie the game back up at 20 points, and after Herndon tied it again at 21-21, the final four points went to McLean. The game-winning point came when senior Ella Park stuffed Herndon at the net, eliciting a roar from the stands and a rush to the court by McLean’s student section. 

“We’ve played this team before and we’ve swept them both times,” Park said after the game. “But today they brought so much energy and we had to pick up the intensity and put 110 percent into every point.” She noted that “it’s great to end on a huge point, but all of us on the team coming together is what really made the moment.” 

Though it was not an ideal result, Tramontozzi said she was “Absolutely thrilled,” with Herndon’s performance. “This is the best playing we’ve had all season,” Tramontozzi said. “We were coming into tonight off a five-set nailbiter grinded out against a tough opponent in semis, whereas our opponent had an easy three-setter, so I think they came into tonight a little more fresh than we did. I think the outcome would be different if we had a week to prepare,” she added. “Hopefully we’ll see them again in regionals and have another shot.” 

“We’ve always been bottom of the district, and this year we were so excited to be able to make it to the semis, let alone the finals,” Anderson said. “We gave it our all, and obviously it wasn’t enough. But McLean is a really good team, and they’re going to do really well, and I’m really happy for them.” 

Stewart said she was looking forward to regionals, where McLean’s girls’ varsity volleyball team would have another chance to prove their mettle. “If they stay calm and confident and build it point-by-point,” she observed, “no one has really shown they can stop them.”

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