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Same ol' story - 'Cats peak for playoffs

October 20, 2006|by DAN KAUFFMAN

It's not the greatest story ever told, but around here, it's a story that may be told just as often.

It goes something like this: Maryland Class 1A powerhouse Williamsport goes through midseason struggles and appears vulnerable before the Wildcats turn it up a couple notches and suddenly become the juggernaut they always are as the playoffs approach.

Surprise! They're doing it again.

No. 3 Williamsport (10-4, 6-0) isn't dominating the competition on its run to a probable MVAL Antietam title - the Wildcats needed five games to squeak past both No. 2 North Hagerstown and Boonsboro this week, avenging losses from earlier this season. But the fact remains, it's now late October, November's playoffs are closing in, and the four-time defending state champions are on a roll with five straight wins.

"I'm liking what I saw this week," Williamsport coach Emily Crabtree said after Thursday's triumph over Boonsboro. "To win two big, tough matches against two good teams ... it feels good to be able to win close ones like that. We know we can do that, and the girls have had that feeling (of success)."

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Williamsport lost seven seniors from last year's championship team, including Herald-Mail Player of the Year Sammi Snodderly and All-Area First Team member Lacie Johnson at the outside-hitter spots and All-Area Second Team setter Lea Drury.

Several players have filled the voids left by graduation - Hailee Growden at outside hitter across from Jessica Bennett, the Wildcats' lone returning starter; Emily Cook as another outside attacking option; Brittany Horn and Kayla Broadwater at middle hitter; Brittany Malott in the back row; and setters Christine Barnes and Lindsey Kneisley, who have teamed up to fill Drury's spot.

"(Horn) is really coming on," Crabtree said. "She's getting confidence. The way she played against Kate Zimmer the other night was huge. ... Hailey and Jess are anchoring the team. Hailee's powerful. She's just got a feel for hitting and she's so strong. She has a top-spin serve that has given teams fits, and when her hitting is on, she's hard to handle. ... (Christine and Lindsey) are running their butts off because our passing has been bad, but they're trying to quarterback the team and put the ball where it needs to be when it needs to be there."

Williamsport's first nine matches were a veritable roller coaster. The Wildcats suffered an early loss to Class 4A power Thomas Johnson - the Patriots are 13-0 this season - and were stunned by Clear Spring on Sept. 19.

Williamsport appeared to right the ship on Sept. 27 with a five-game victory over No. 4 Greencastle, which is to date the Blue Devils' only non-tournament loss this season (the Hubs defeated the Blue Devils in the McConnellsburg Tournament final), but fell in four games to both Boonsboro and North in its next two matches.

"We struggled with our passing game," Crabtree said. "That was a huge piece of the skill part of our game. ... We were getting used to playing as a team and getting a feel for each other and playing together and not as individuals."

Since the loss to the Hubs, the Wildcats have avenged the losses to Clear Spring, North and Boonsboro - all in the games that counted in the MVAL Antietam standings, leaving Williamsport one win away from an undefeated conference campaign.

"They've gained some confidence and we're playing as a team," Crabtree said. "They know what's on the line."

Games to watch

No. 3 Williamsport (10-4, 6-0) at Smithsburg (4-9, 3-3), Tuesday - The rival Leopards are the only team standing between the Wildcats and sole possession of the MVAL Antietam title.

Clear Spring (5-6, 3-3) at No. 2 North Hagerstown (10-2, 5-1), Thursday - The Blazers know a thing or two about upsets, having stunned both Williamsport and Boonsboro in league play. Here's another opportunity for a shocker.

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