For as long as Grant Scott has coached the Howard volleyball team, the Lions have been known as a team that holds its own in the highly competitive Howard County league. But the program hasn't been known for leading that competition.
That changed this season when 6-foot outside hitter Sydney Biniak emerged as one of the most dominant all-around players to come through Howard County in the past 10 years.
"This was the first year that, every time we played a match, we were the favorite. We had the bull's-eye on our backs. And to live up to that expectation with a 12-1 county record was significant," said Scott, who has coached Howard for more than a decade. "If I didn't have (Sydney), not only her offensive skills and her defensive skills, but her leadership, we don't win the county championship."
Biniak, the Howard County Times volleyball Player of the Year, became known as a force last year when she collected 166 kills, 168 digs, 68 aces and 27 blocks to earn all-county first-team honors.
With only one senior graduating from a team that won 10 matches and advanced to the regional finals, Biniak knew the expectations would be even greater this fall. With that in mind, she got to work on an unlikely aspect of her game.
"I improved on my passing mostly because this year we did a two-person serve-receive, which is different for us. It was just me and (libero) Lizzie Berg in the back row, so I had to pick up my passing for that," said Biniak, who finished with 232 digs (2.9 per set). "Being an all-around player is important because even though I'm in the back row I can still hit from the back row and just being a leader on the court is important because I need to motivate the team and I feel like on the court is the best way that I can do that."
In a big five-set playoff win over two-time defending state champion Sherwood, Scott learned after the match that the Warriors intentionally served at Biniak in an effort to tire her out.
"I said, 'OK, serve her!' " Scott said. "They changed that strategy halfway through the match. She thrives on being challenged."
While Biniak, who has also played basketball since age 5 and is the defending state champion in the high jump, became a more well-rounded player, she still gave fans at Howard plenty of reason to cheer with her thunderous kills.
Even after chasing the ball all over the court, Biniak had enough energy to tally 321 kills and 33 blocks, improving her kills per set from 2.7 to 4.3 and her hitting percentage from .156 to .308. And that was in an offense in which junior setter Hanna Webster distributed the ball to a pair of middles — Courtney Merson and Maya Hairston — who combined for another 290 kills, and an outside hitter, Allison Holland, with another 80.
"She could have had 100 more kills, but it was never about numbers for her, it was about what she could do to make the team better," Scott said. "She didn't just work on her hitting. Her emphasis was on wanting to become better on defense and serve-receive so she could help the team more."
Although the Lions had their best season in school history, winning the county title for the first time in more than 30 years, they fell in the regional championship to eventual state champion Dulaney, 3-1. It was the only set Dulaney lost all year.
"That was really heartbreaking for us, because all season we had been talking about going to states and how we wanted that so badly," said Biniak, who also was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Maryland and the Baltimore Sun All-Metro Player of the Year. "Going to Dulaney with their crowd, and their team was very good ... it was just really tough to end like that.
"Our ultimate goal was states but we fell short of that. But our season was really great overall, not losing a match at home and beating the two-time defending state champion (Sherwood)."
Biniak's volleyball career will continue next season at the University of Maryland, as the Terrapins move into the Big 10 Conference.
Biniak, who has never missed a day of school since kindergarten and is a member of the National Honor Society, is interested in studying psychology and a career in sports. She also enjoys photography.
An earlier version of this story omitted the statistics for Marriotts Ridge. See below the second team for the Marriotts Ridge statistical leaders.
Named to the All-County first team:
Rachael Girard, Glenelg sophomore. After starting at libero last year as a freshman and coming through with a team-high 259 digs, Girard made the transition to setter this year and flourished. She delivered the ball to Player of the Year candidate Morgan Perry and older sister Sarah Girard, finishing with a league-best 675 assists (8.9 per set), collecting 40 or more in five matches, and added 62 aces on 90 percent serving, 123 digs, 30 kills and even 11 blocks.