Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Girls volleyball: Where have all the hitters gone?

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As the new girls volleyball season approaches, change, once again, is in the air. To start things off, both teams that reached the Class 4A state final in 2006, Sherwood and Damascus, have experienced coaching changes, as Brian McCarty takes over for state champion Sherwood and Brandie Couch leads Damascus. Yet, on the floor, the changes might be more stirring. Of the 15 players on the 2006 All-Gazette first team, 13 were seniors, highlighting a season when most of the heavy hitters in Montgomery County were in their final year of high school. This season might be the year when new names and playing styles emerge.

‘‘We were devastated as a whole by graduation, but that has happened in the county before,” Magruder coach Scott Zanni said. ‘‘You are going to have some years like that. Four years ago we lost several great hitters that went on to play Division I [college] volleyball. A year or two years later, we had a lot of good players again. This year will be interesting.”

In fact, the graduation of hitters like Gazette Player of the Year Kailee May, now at Fordham (N.Y.) University, or two-time Gazette first-teamer Kaitlin Straiter, who is now playing at Division II Francis Marion (S.C.) University, portend a power outage this season, but not necessarily. The sparks may fly on the other side of the ball.

‘‘Defense might finally get some of the credit that it deserves,” Gaithersburg coach Michele Staymates said. ‘‘It has a chance to shine in some respects. It may come down, this year, to the group that can put forth the best team effort, or the team that has the best setter.”

At the start of this season, defending state champion Sherwood looks quite a bit different. Not only has Gazette Coach of the Year Time Gilchrist stepped down to focus on teaching, but also the Warriors have lost hitters Claire Kodan and Katie Obal to graduation. Yet, with a tradition of winning in place, it might not be so hard to stay on top.

‘‘A lot of the girls who are returning know what it takes to win,” McCarthy, a 2003 graduate of Sherwood, said. ‘‘They do a good job of helping the new ones along.”

Senior setter Kerry Collins, a four-year varsity player, will set the tone this year, but will be assisted by sophomore Robbin Lee, who McCarthy described as ‘‘integral” to the team. Junior Erin McMakin will also be unleashed, and is considered the hardest hitter on the team.

‘‘It’s been a smooth transition,” McCarthy said. ‘‘This team especially, we love having the high expectations. I like it when we walk into a gym with a little swagger, and let our opponents know we’re here.”

At Magruder, Zanni is still trying to find the engine for a squad looking to make its third consecutive trip to the 4A West Region championship game.

‘‘We aren’t trying to replace a [departed] kid with another,” he said. ‘‘This is a team game. We are keeping 15 kids on the roster and we are working them as hard as any team that I have ever coached.”

In the middle of the front row, a pair of 5-foot-10 hitters in senior Alex Coleman and junior Corri Smoot will be asked to provide offense. Senior Stefani Schaeper and junior Andrea Fort will likely play major roles defensively. The player that Zanni is counting on, though, is junior Alison Musser.

‘‘She is versatile,” he said. ‘‘She can pass and hit and set. She should be out on the court the majority of the time. Beyond that, we’ll see. Hopefully, the habits that we set at the beginning of the year will make a difference at the end. We are looking forward to the challenge.”

At Blake, the trend has been toward incremental improvement. This year, though, might be the year the Bengals take a big leap forward. Eight of the 10 varsity players played club volleyball in the off-season, including freshman Meagan Lagerlef, who will see time as a middle hitter.

‘‘This should be an exciting year for Blake volleyball,” coach Leigh Tinsley said. ‘‘This is a team with a lot of talent. If our passing stays strong, we will be tough to beat.”

Junior setter Micaela Perez Ferrero will run the offense, and will be charged with feeding the ball to senior hitters Danielle Lawrence and Valerie Park. Hunter Schallhorn makes the switch from libero to the outside hitter position as well.

‘‘We have a great setter in Micaela,” Tinsley said. ‘‘She can run the court and run a fast and complex offense. We need to gel and come together as a team.”

Paint Branch took a step forward last year, making it as far as the 3A West Region semifinals. This is a year where the team hopes to take another step forward.

‘‘We are a young team, but we have a lot of motivation,” coach Nicole Shields said. ‘‘For us to be successful, we will have to have a lot of communication on the court and stay confident in ourselves.”

As part of the youth movement, sophomore Elaina Straub will start at setter, while two players called up from the JV, junior middle hitter Noelle Wishart and junior libero Lauren Bradshaw will play major roles. However, the Panthers have senior hitters Briana Bronson and Titi Huynh handy to provide experience.

‘‘We are looking to be more aggressive this season,” Shields said.

Springbrook starts the season with its fourth coach in the last four years. However, Alexis Reed, a 2003 graduate, has the pedigree to turn the Blue Devils around. The former All-Gazette first-team selection played Division I college volleyball at Long Island (N.Y.) University, before graduating last May.

‘‘We are going to deliver a brand of offense that teams in the county have not often seen,” Reed said. ‘‘We are going to focus on the fundamentals, and we have something that no amount of Junior Olympic experience can deliver — athleticism.”

Daishayna Richardson will return for her senior season to play middle blocker. Sophomore setter Aysha Hsu will make the transition from the JV squad, and will get help from senior hitter Aselin Lands, the Blue Devils’ most-seasoned player.

‘‘If our student-athletes perform half as well as I think they can, we should have a solid season,” Reed said.

While Einstein starts this season with a new coach in Emily Hallam, she hopes to do the same things as Silver Spring rivals Northwood and Blair, which is to get more out of its athletes this year. While the Blazers are used to seniors leading, and will have the experience of four-year varsity player Julie Zhu, who is their all-around floor leader, for the Gladiators, in just their second year of varsity competition, it is a novel experience.

‘‘We actually have seniors this year,” Northwood coach Ray Trail said. ‘‘We know how we want things to go.”

Those seniors, middle hitter Yinka Bellow and outside hitter Erika Scretchen will also be helped by the team’s most-accomplished player, junior outside hitter Lizzie Sauber.

‘‘I don’t want to sugarcoat anything for them anymore,” Trail said. ‘‘Our goal is to win four or five matches this season. We are better than we were.”

In the private-school realm, Washington Catholic Athletic Conference rivals Good Counsel and Holy Cross square off. Though Good Counsel lost a two-time All-Gazette first-teamer in Jessica Emanuele, who is now playing at Virginia Tech, it is loaded. Junior setter Brighid Casey will lead the two-time defending MD⁄DC private-school champs, and the roster includes junior hitter Becky West, and senior defensive specialist Jessica Garay-Leano. The Tartans are trying to keep pace.

‘‘I sometimes wonder what they are feeding those girls over there to keep them so tall,” new Holy Cross coach Rusty Dillon said of Good Counsel. ‘‘But our girls are doing great. We are raising the level of play here.”

Fast Facts

Blair Blazers

Head coach: Heather Amell, 2nd year

Last year’s record: 4-9

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Julie Zhu (Sr., all-around)

Blake Bengals

Head coach: Leigh Tinsley, 3rd year

Last year’s record: 9-7

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Hunter Schallhorn (Sr., OH), Danielle Lawrence (Sr., OH), Micaela Perez Ferrero (Jr., Setter)

Einstein Titans

Head coach: Emily Hallam, 1st year

Last year’s record: N⁄A

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Carline Morris (Sr., Setter), Jessica Gonzalez (Sr., OH)

Good Counsel Falcons

Head coach: Karen Kart,5th year

Last year’s record: 26-1, WCAC, MD⁄DC private school champs

Players to watch: Brighid Casey (Jr., setter), Becky West (Jr., OH), Jessica Garay-Leano (Sr., DS)

Holy Cross Tartans

Head coach: Rusty Dillon, 1st year

Last year’s record: 6-9

Players to watch: Alexandra Andrakakos (Sr., OH)

Kennedy Cavaliers

Head coach: Wanda Hsiung, 27th year

Last year’s record: 5-12

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Melissa Jones (Sr., Setter), Angie Neefus (Sr., OH), Morgan Lee (Jr., OH)

Magruder Colonels

Head coach: Scott Zanni, 17th year

Last year’s record: 15-1

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Alex Coleman (Sr., MH), Corri Smoot (Jr., MH), Alison Musser (Jr., all-around)

Paint Branch Panthers

Head coach: Nicole Shields, 3rd year

Last year’s record: 6-11

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Titi Huynh (Sr., OH⁄MH), Brianna Bronson (Sr., OH), Elaina Straub (Soph., Setter)

Sherwood Warriors

Head coach: Brian McCarty, 1st year

Last year’s record: 17-1

Last state title: 2006 (1st)

Players to watch: Kerry Collins (Sr., setter), Erin McMakin (Jr., OH), Robbin Lee (Soph., all-around)

Springbrook Blue Devils

Head coach: Alexis Reed, 1st year

Last year’s record: 1-12

Last state title: 1981 (1st)

Players to watch: Daishayna Richardson (Sr., OH⁄MH), Aselin Lands (Sr., OH), Aysha Hsu (Soph., setter)

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