In 2012, Washington County ruled Maryland high school volleyball.
Smithsburg continued its reign as the queens of Class 1A, winning a fourth straight state title to tie Williamsport’s title run from 2002-05 as the longest in county history. The Leopards have won nine titles overall — tied for third-most in state history.
After going seven seasons without a state title, Williamsport reached the top of the Class 2A mountain last year for its 13th championship overall, second-most in state history behind Centennial’s 14.
Last but not least, North Hagerstown successfully repeated as Class 3A state champs — beating the storied Centennial program in the state final — to add to the Hubs’ bragging rights as MVAL Antietam champions.
To sum it all up, Washington County won three of the state’s four classifications — the only three it has schools competing in.
How about an encore in 2013?
Not so fast, say the coaches. Early September is no time to be thinking about the playoffs in November.
“It’s a brand new year. Last year was last year and the past is the past,” North coach Megan Crawford said. “It’s just one game at a time. We’ve got to worry about Middletown (on Sept. 9 in the season opener).”
Before the playoffs roll around, expect some heated battles to play out in gyms across the county.
“I just want to compete against the top-caliber teams, and Washington County is a tough county in volleyball. This year will be no different,” Smithsburg coach Rachel Brashear said. “Last year, we lost to Williamsport and North, both power programs. We’d like to be more competitive with them this year, but our ultimate goal is to win the region and get to states again ... but we have a lot of hard work to get there.”
A fifth straight Class 1A title this season would tie Catonsville (1979-83) and Centennial (1996-2000) for the second-longest streak in state history, behind Wootton’s seven straight from 1983-89.
“The four in a row, I don’t even think it’s sunk in yet, but we’re going to ride this wave as long as we can,” Brashear said.
The Leopards appear to be in great shape to keep it going. They return senior outside hitter Amanda Snowden, who has to be considered the favorite to win county player of the year honors. The two-time Herald-Mail all-county first-team honoree averaged 4.32 kills, 2.06 digs and 0.66 aces per set in 2012.
“Amanda’s a leader for us offensively and has been for the last two years since she had to step up as a sophomore,” Brashear said. “She’s a very hard worker, sets a good example in practice and works on her game in the offseason. She’ll continue to be a solid presence for us.”
Six other players return from last year’s squad, giving Smithsburg a wealth of experience. Junior Payton Belella (7.62 assists, 0.64 aces per set) will once again run the 5-1 offense. Sophomore outside hitter Hollee Winders and sophomore middle hitter Alaina Black should provide attacking balance. Junior libero Marissa Dangler was one of the top defensive players in the county in 2012, averaging 4.30 digs per set, and seniors Jenny Fritts and Jess Sensenbaugh add back row depth.
“I’m really looking for my sophomores, especially Alaina and Hollee. They’re going to have to step into more of a leadership role for us and be more go-to players,” Brashear said. “When it comes to leadership defensively, other than our block with Haley (Caudell), we bring back all of our defenders, so they’re pretty confident in the back row. I’m looking for us to be solid on defense.”
Sphomore newcomers Megan Moran and Lexi Spickler could add depth at middle hitter, while junior Bri Haugh could see action on defense.
Yes, the Hubs lost Peyton Wallech, the 2012 Herald-Mail Washington County Player of the Year who’s now thumping spikes for Hagerstown Community College.
However, North lost 2011 player of the year Autumn Fisher to graduation before last season, and that didn’t slow the Hubs down much. Not to mention, the rest of last year’s team returns virtually intact.
“Having some experience back is a strength we haven’t had in the past,” Crawford said. “They’re comfortable, they’ve played in the big games, so that will benefit us.”
The Hubs’ top returning attacker, junior middle hitter Zoe Schreiber (2.81 kills, 0.50 blocks per set in 2012), and top returning defensive player, junior libero Alexis McCarthy (3.77 digs per set), were all-county first-team honorees last year. Senior setter Sarah Bentley (10 assists, 1.91 digs per set while running the 5-1 offense) and senior outside hitter Michaela Moody earned second-team honors. Senior outside hitter Christine Randall and junior defensive specialist Emily Folk were significant roleplayers.
There’s not many openings for newcomers to make their mark, but junior middle hitter Khaliah Frost will likely get an opportunity.
“We’re still trying to figure out exactly what’s going to work and what we need to fix and improve on, but they’re hard workers and we’ll get there eventually,” Crawford said.
Like the Hubs, the Wildcats will have to make do without last year’s top attacking threat, as All-County First Team honoree Stacey Christy is at Virginia Tech. They also lost second-team honorees Haley Wolff (now at HCC) and Andrea Nunnally.
The good news: Williamsport returns eight seniors, and they’ll be front and center — led by a pair of all-county first-team honorees who return in outside hitter Courtney Malott and setter Emily Taylor. Malott doubles as one of the county’s top defensive players and has the flexibility to play middle hitter if needed, while Taylor averaged 8.51 assists per set in 2012.
“(Courtney) is definitely our most consistent all-around player. She’s very strong, she’s left-handed and she can play anywhere. She has a jump serve to be reckoned with,” Wildcats coach Emily Crabtree said. “Emily has a feel for all the hitters, having played with them so long. She’s got pretty good court sense. That’s going to be a key, distributing the ball so we can make the most out of it.”
Middle hitter Lindsey Mowbray earned second-team honors a year ago. Brooklyn Welch, Karli Grimes and Alexis Evans provide depth outside, with Welch a solid defender. MaryBeth Raidt can set and play defense as needed.
“The eight seniors have been together for quite a while and that chemistry is nice, they get along and work together well,” Crabtree said. “I’m not really set on a starting lineup and we have so many variations we can use because so many players are so versatile. Were pretty balanced. I can bring someone off the bench and we’re not going to lose anything.”
So, how about a second straight Class 2A state title and a record-tying 14th overall?
“The ultimate goal is always there,” Crabtree said. “Once you win one, you want another one, and they’re going to shoot for it, but they’ll have to work hard to get there and we’ll have to learn how to handle the bumps along the way.”
The Warriors had a solid season in 2012, finishing 8-7 overall and 4-3 in the MVAL Antietam, in fourth place behind the three state championship schools. Their first-year coach, Leah Pongratz — who previously coached at St. Maria Goretti — played for Boonsboro in the late 90s and early 2000s before graduating in 2002.
“I’m so excited. I feel like I’m at home,” Pongratz said. “I’m back in my old gym and it feels nice.”
She has plenty of attacking depth returning, led by junior middle hitter Taylor Williams, an all-county second-team honoree last year. Seniors Sarah Anderson and Meredith Craig were productive outside in 2012, though Craig is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered late last season and may not be 100 percent at the start of this season. Junior newcomer Leigh Ann Cowden could step in and add even more offense.
“We definitely have some versatility,” Pongratz said. “I have a lot of hitters that I can use on the inside and the outside. ... I have a younger team. Taylor and Sarah are going to have to step up and be leaders. Taylor is definitely a strong blocker, so we need that. My plan is to use her all-around. She can serve, she can pass for as tall as she is, and on the front line, she’s our go-to.”
Senior libero Natalie Reeder averaged 3.69 digs per set a year ago and is a steady anchor on the back row. Junior Marie Harmon, a newcomer, will join Reeder on defense.
The biggest question mark is at setter, where Shelby Griffith and Shelby Wallace — who both earned all-county second-team honors in 2012 while running a 6-2 offense — have graduated. Sophomore Sadie Rowe steps in and will be running a 5-1.
“I definitely expect to be very competitive,” Pongratz said. “If they work together and keep talking — they’re timid and quiet — but if they step out of their comfort zone, we can play against anyone.”
The Blazers are in much the same boat as the Warriors, in that while they’ll be considered underdogs to the “big three,” they possess enough weapons to be taken seriously. Senior outside hitter Kyleigh Stottlemyer and junior hitters Kristen Mellott and Olivia Rowe each averaged at least 1.50 kills per set in 2012. Sophomore newcomer Jenna Smith also will see action.
“Kristen and Olivia — both middle hitters last year — are giving us some flexibility with our line-up this season because they have both shown their ability to hit outside as well,” wrote Clear Spring coach Sabrina Lee-LeHew in an email.
The loss of setter Sarah Elwood — an athletic all-around threat who’s playing for HCC this season — is a tough hole to fill. The Blazers will run a 6-2 set using senior Jessica Long and junior Ryann Fiery.
Senior Jordan McNamee will likely be the back row leader, with freshman Hannah Bowers stepping in.
“We have a lot of returning players who gained valuable varsity experience last year, so we should be competitive,” Lee-LeHew wrote. “I’m excited to see what this team will do when they put it all into action.”
The Rebels’ last winning season came in 2009 (9-7), before a group of seniors that included Rebecca Pearl, Morgan McCoy and Emma Stahl graduated. It’s been rough sailing since, as South is 8-38 over the past three seasons.
Coach Chuck Weaver thinks the roots for a turnaround could be planted this season with a young group that includes no seniors.
“The goal is to turn around our mental attitude and getting over three years of losing seasons,” Weaver said. “That’s the one thing I like about the girls coming back, they all have a positive attitude. My biggest excitement this year is the mental attitude of this team.”
Juniors Elena Young (middle hitter), Noel Seals (middle hitter) and Kendra Day (outside hitter) are the lone returnees. Sophomore Kiah Marshalleck will be the setter in South’s 5-1 offense, and sophomore Katelyn Mehrling — a standout pitcher for the Rebels’ softball team as a freshman — will play outside hitter.
“It’s a young team, no doubt,” Weaver said. “Kendra’s definitely going to be one of my guns, Kendra and Elena. Noel brings blocking to the table, she was one of my best blockers last year. Kiah didn’t play for us last year, has great hands and wanted to set, so she’s starting from scratch and we’re working with her. Katelyn’s an all-around great player, with strength and the vertical to hit and good defensive skills.”
The Panthers went 7-9 in 2012 and lost three key players to graduation, making this a rebuilding year. Only one player returns — senior setter/outside hitter Kara McKinley, who did a little of everything for the Panthers a year ago.
“She kind of surprised us a lot last year, more with her hitting, she made a big improvement there,” Hancock coach Laura Baker said. “We need her in a leadership role as a setter, and she’s taken a mentoring role with Paige (Weller, a sophomore setter/outside hitter). We’re using Kara anywhere we can and in any hitting position at any moment.”
Weller could wind up running a 5-1 offense, or team up with McKinley in a 6-2 look. Juniors Haley Demory (middle hitter) and Kayla Heller (outside hitter) will look to provide offense, while junior Morgan Hamil will be a key back row player.
“We have some kinks to work out. Once we’re settled in, I think they’ll be doing really well,” Baker said. “We have a lot of work to build the team, but I feel the talent is there.”
The Eagles have won three straight Mason Dixon Christian Conference regular-season and tournament championships and have a 51-match winning streak in conference play.
Of course, all of that came with Kara Stamper slamming spikes from the middle of the court. The three-time all-county first-team star is now at Bryan College in Tennessee.
So this is the year the Eagles fall back to Earth, right? Not so fast.
Four big reasons why Heritage may still be the MDCC team to beat: Junior middle hitter Christi Jackson was a solid second option behind Stamper in 2012; freshman Chloe Prejean was a capable starting setter as an eighth-grader; senior libero Nicole Gaylor led the Eagles in digs last year; and sophomore newcomer Ashton Hinnant, at 6-foot-2, might just be the next Stamper, so to speak.
“We played Spring Mills, Hancock and McConnellsburg in scrimmages and we won all three,” said Heritage coach Young-Sook Anderson. “I really wanted to scrimmage McConnellsburg, they came to Hancock’s scrimmage and we were there, too. We know we can do it without Kara and the girls have gained confidence. In previous years we totally depended on Kara a lot to win the points, but now my girls are all playing well together as a team. That is a difference.”
The Eagles also return junior outside hitters Hannah Gaylor and Lizzy Kriner, while sophomore Hannah Muller will see action on the back row.
“Chloe’s a good player, a good server. Having a setter like her is a privilege. She’s huge for our team,” Anderson said. “Christi has stepped up a lot since Kara left and I think Kara taught Christi so much for the middle position. ... I was thinking I was going to have a rebuilding year this year without Kara, but adding Ashton to our team, that fills a huge hole and gives us hope for winning the MDCC again.”
The Knights are one team that has plans to challenge Heritage Academy for top honors in the MDCC this season. Grace Academy returns five key players — including senior hitter Brooke Morgan, who missed last season with an ACL tear.
“Seeing Brooke be able to shine after her injury is very exciting,” Knights coach Lauren Henry said. “Our team goals are to make it to the MDCC championship game and hopefully win that. We really want that trophy and banner,” Knights coach Lauren Henry said. “We’re planning on going to the national tournament in Tennessee this year. I really think it’s going to come together this year.”
Morgan — the younger sister of Rebecca Morgan, who starred for Grace Academy and HCC in recent years — made an impact as a sophomore before her injury last year. Senior outside hitter Heather Groves and freshman outside hitter Hannah Colvin add attacking options.
“Heather’s a lefty and that helps a lot. She’s just got a strong, powerful hit and is a good server. Hannah we’re really excited about. She’s more consistent in her hits and she knows how to figure out what she’s doing wrong and fix that.”
Senior Valerie Cole will once again run the Knights’ 5-1 offense. Senior Allie Cox is moving from outside hitter to the back row, where she will help libero Jocelyn Quirple, a junior.
“Allie led us defensively last year as an outside, so she’ll be a great asset,” Henry said. “I love running a 5-1 and having that consistency all the way around. Valerie knows the girls more this year, so I expect her to blossom.”
Not that long ago, the Lions were kings of the MDCC, but 2012 was an uncharacteristically down year and this season may be another rebuilding one.
Senior Kierra White should lead the way as an outside hitter/defensive specialist who will be asked to do it all.
“Kierra is our most experienced player by far, probably the best passer and someone who has good overall skills that we can plug in at a number of places,” Broadfording coach Joe Cartwright said. “She has relentless hustle, and even the referees comment on how much they enjoy watching her play.”
Junior middle hitter Tiffany Midkiff may become the primary attacker, while freshman Sierra Hornick is the starting setter after playing as an eighth-grader last year. Junior Hayley Widmyer will see action all over the court.
“We’re focusing on getting better skill-wise, getting better with team chemisry and attitudes and focusing our desire,” Cartwright said. “We’re teaching them to not beat themselves. Those are the main things.”
After two seasons full of growing pains, Saints coach Blakeley Jackson expects to see some rewards in 2013.
“Last year and the year before were building years. This year is a playing year,” Jackson said.
Three starters return in senior outside hitter Kim Wooster, junior middle hitter McKenna Hough and senior libero Maddie Guillard.
“Kim has got it all. She’s an all-around player, can jump-serve and spot-serve very well,” Jackson said. “Anything I ask her to do, she’ll do it. She’s a fantastic hitter and is very smart.”
Junior setter Ellie Williams — who played for the Saints as a freshman before attending Jefferson High School in West Virginia as a sophomore — returns to the Saints.
“I was really excited to hear she was coming back. I’d seen her play a couple years ago and was hoping she’d grown and developed, and she has,” Jackson said. “She’s a smart setter and can hit left-handed. Between the two of them, I’m excited about it.”
The two matchups with first-year school Spring Mills (W.Va.) will carry special significance, as Jackson’s sister, Keri Jackson, is the coach of the Cardinals. The teams play at Saint James on Oct. 12 and at Spring Mills on Oct. 22.
ST. MARIA GORETTI
Gaels coach Tonya Miller has a mix of experience and youth this season, with four returning starters back from a squad that went 6-11 in 2012, but just three seniors on the 12-player roster.
“I’m actually very excited for this team. They work well together, but they’re still pretty young,” Miller said. “Consistency is going to be our biggest goal. We’ve had scrimmages where we blew people out of the water one set and then the next set things fell apart.”
Junior middle hitter Abbey Eich should be Goretti’s primary attacking option, with senior Drew Holderby and junior Maggie Litzinger providing options outside. Junior Morgan Hilker steps into the starting lineup this season and adds depth in the middle.
“Abby will definitely be a leader. She’s a captain, she has the skills and she’s big on the kills and blocks,” Miller said.
Once again directing the 5-1 offense is sophomore Emma Hogan, who stepped right in as a freshman in 2012. Sophomore Liz Davis will back up Hogan.
“(Hogan) went to summer camps and worked on a few skills she needed,” Miller said. “The girls trust her already and she’s starting to run plays.”
Holderby will lead the Gaels defensively: “She’s always where she needs to be,” Miller said.