SMITHSBURG — It was a senior class that left a lasting legacy on Smithsburg’s storied volleyball program.
Sara Rishell, Taylor Belella, Katie Sprecher, Danielle Beaver and Danielle Hudson were starters on the Leopards’ 2009 and 2010 Maryland Class 1A state championship teams, going 38-0 over those two seasons. When they graduated last spring, many wondered how far Smithsburg’s program would fall in 2011.
But a new group of Leopards — led by senior Danielle Harbaugh, the only starter back from the 2010 title team — have made their own impression while keeping Smithsburg at the top of the Class 1A heap.
This afternoon, Smithsburg (16-2) will try to become the 13th team in state history to three-peat when it faces Perryville (13-5) at 2:30 at the University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum in College Park.
“This team has shown more growth than any team I’ve ever had the privilege of coaching,” said Smithsburg coach Rachel Brashear, who can become the 15th coach in state history to win at least three state titles. “Our first match at Boonsboro, Danielle was our only real hitter, and now we have three established hitters. Our defense has really improved and stepped up.
“Nobody expected us to be here, and yet here we are, and with authority.”
The Leopards have swept each of their playoff opponents this year — in fact, Smithsburg hasn’t lost a game in the playoffs since the 2009 1A West semifinals, compiling a string of 12 straight sweeps.
Harbaugh had perhaps the toughest job of anyone this season — trying to fill the shoes of Rishell, a two-time Herald-Mail Player of the Year who recently was named the Patriot League Player and Rookie of the Year as a freshman for American University. Harbaugh met the challenge, leading Smithsburg’s attack with 5.1 kills and 1.2 blocks per game this season.
“I really didn’t expect what she has given this team,” Brashear said. “I thought she would be solid, but not five kills per game. ... She’s really crafty. She can hit both directions and she sees the court well.”
Junior Haley Caudell and sophomore Amanda Snowden have raised their level of play to give the Leopards a diverse attack. Snowden averages 3.2 kills per game and Caudell adds 1.7 kills and 0.8 blocks per game.
“Haley was on varsity last year and didn’t get much playing time, but she learned under some real solid players,” Brashear said. “Her blocking has really improved and she’s turned into a force at the net. We brought Amanda up for the playoffs last year. She’s real explosive on the outside when she cranks on the ball, and she’s becoming more consistent. She also contributes on the back row.”
At the start of the season, Brashear planned on using both senior Sarah Shives and freshman Payton Belella as setters in a 6-2 offense. But at the beginning of October, Brashear changed things up and went with a 5-1 offense, with Shives setting and Belella in a defensive role. Shives answered the challenge by averaging 8.3 assists per game since the change.
“As a senior, being the 1 in the 5-1, I’m the leader,” Shives said. “Danielle and I really click, and we do our thing.”
“We were short a hitter and we needed Payton defensively,” Brashear said. “Sarah stepped in and showed so much improvement, and she’s such a hustler — she’s also third on our team in digs. She’s just been a consistent presence.”
Senior Karah Knight — who saw playing time in the back row last year — has led the defense with more than five digs per game, with Snowden, Shives and junior Cara Ferguson contributing.
“There was a lot of competition at practice because we had five spots to fill, and I think that helped us,” Brashear said. “They’re very selfless players. They play the position they’re asked to play, and they know their roles. That’s how this program is and how it’s going to be.”
Perryville is making its first appearance in a state final. The Panthers’ 24-26, 25-10, 25-18, 25-20 victory over Surrattsville in the Class 1A semifinals on Tuesday was their first win in five trips to the state semis.