Roland Park Country School's players took coach Shawn Slater seriously when he told them they had the talent to contend for an Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland B Conference title even though the Reds were coming off a winless campaign in league play.
"I told them, 'You have a chance at a championship and winning the whole thing,'' Slater explained. "They were like, 'You have to be crazy.' I said, 'You guys have to believe in yourselves. I believe in you.'"
Nobody is doubting Slater, who served as a varsity assistant last year after coaching club volleyball for three years, after his prediction has been so accurate.
Led by senior outside hitter Claire Muller, senior setter Hannah Mathew and freshman libero Ariana Rodriguez, the Reds finished the regular season in first place with a sterling 11-1 record and are 14-2 overall.
"The girls have the desire and heart," Slater said. "For whatever reason, you can see a change in attitude. We have kind of always been bottom of the barrel. There was this mentality of volleyball not being the greatest at Roland Park."
Roland Park has a first-round bye, then will host a playoff semifinal Oct. 24.
Catholic (4-8 league, 5-8 overall) or the Institute of Notre Dame (4-6, 5-11) are possible opponents.
If Roland Park advances to the championship game on Oct. 26 (5 p.m.) at home, the Reds likely would face either Mercy (9-2, 10-5) or Annapolis Area Christian School (7-4, 7-7).
Roland Park beat Mercy twice, but split with AACS. Slater likes this chances against either squad.
"The first time we played Mercy (Sept. 19), we knew it had implications on how things would go for the rest of the season," Slater said of the four-set win. "Against Annapolis Area, I have video of the girls playing (Sept. 24) with such intensity. It's something I hadn't seen from them (before)."
Slater will continue to rely on Rodriguez, who leads the team in digs (388) and aces (84).
"Other coaches can't believe she is a freshman," the coach said. "Her passing and serving are impeccable."
Rodriguez comes off the bench because liberos can't start.
Roland Park, however, does have an impressive starting lineup, including Muller, Mathew, junior outside hitter Alexis Green, junior middle hitter CeCe Finney, sophomore middle hitter Michala Clay and sophomore opposite hitter Sarah Chaffman.
The Reds are also enjoying significant contributions from freshman outside hitter Bailey Andrews, a recent call-up from the junior varsity.
"We aren't the best hitting or blocking team," Slater said. "For us, serving and passing are our strengths. So when it comes to serving, we are serving people out and keeping them out of the their offense."
Roland Park kept St. Timothy's out of its offense in the Reds' season finale on Oct. 18, sweeping the visitors, 25-18, 25-15, 25-10.
Rodriguez (16 digs, 5 aces), Muller (12 digs, 5 kills) and Finney (5 blocks) led the winners.
The hosts struggled some in the first game, falling behind, 16-14, until closing on an 11-2 run behind the Andrews' serves.
"It's indicative of our season," Slater said of the first game. "Coming out slow has been our M.O."
Roland Park raced out to a 7-1 advantage in game two and was never threatened the rest of the way, including its dominating effort in game three.
"This year, we are having fun," Mathew said. "We are giving 110 percent and that's the extra effort the coaching is always talking about." .Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun