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.
"Rachael was the only true single setter and we were one of the few teams that ran a true 5-1 offense," coach Jason Monjes said.
Girard was also honored as an American Volleyball Coaches Association Phenom.
Hanna Webster, Howard junior. A master of the jump set, Webster got the ball to Biniak often. But she also kept opponents off-balance by distributing passes to middles Courtney Merson (160 kills) and Maya Hairston (131), as well as Allison Holland (80). She finished with 592 assists (7.8 per set), and also managed to collect 128 digs, 47 kills and 15 blocks, and serve at better than 95 percent with 37 aces.
"Hanna's job was to use her other players' talents to maximize Sydney's," coach Grant Scott said. "Hanna knew when to give the ball to different hitters to maximize the total talent on the team. Her strength as a defender and an aggressive spot server should also be recognized."
Sarah Girard, Glenelg junior. A libero under normal circumstances, Girard, showed a chameleon-like ability to adapt to whatever role helped the team most. This season, she moved from opposite to outside hitter and posted 212 kills along with 342 digs, best in the league for any position. Girard also excelled at the service line, serving better than 93 percent with 61 aces.
"Without Sarah, we don't hit as well and pass and dig as well in the back row," Monjes said. "Sarah moved from opposite to outside hitter this year, a position she has never played, and was a big factor in our success ... Sarah was also our best serve receive person with over a 2.5 rating."
Morgan Perry, Glenelg senior. A contender for Player of the Year honors, Perry's numbers might have blown away the field in any other season. She led the league with 345 kills (4.9 per set), making only 134 errors in 776 attempts for a .272 hitting percentage, and was second on the team with 259 digs. She also had more than 20 blocks, 34 aces on 89 percent serving and 12 assists. Perry is a three-time all-county first-team selection, and led the Gladiators to a 3A East regional championship this fall.
"Without her, we don't get as far as we do in the league," Monjes said. "I'm not sure if anyone expected us to finish second, nor be the only (county) team to beat Howard, and we couldn't do that without Morgan Perry."
Jessie Link, Centennial senior. The repeat first-team all-county selection had 90 kills in only 223 attempts, making only 25 hitting errors for a .291 hitting percentage. She was also one of the most effective servers in the league, with 22 aces and only six missed serves in 197 attempts (97 percent). Link used her quickness to collect 82 digs and make 15 blocks. She made only five errors in 93 serve-receive chances.
Link and fellow middle Katie Havlik "were the quickest pair of middles in the state," coach Larry Schofield said.
Mallory Baldwin, Mt. Hebron senior. The relentless libero led her squad with 322 digs and was 400-for-428 in serve-receive chances. But just because Baldwin wore the libero jersey didn't mean that she didn't contribute elsewhere. The 2012 second-team selection added 36 assists, 28 kills and 19 aces on 91 percent serving.
"Mallory was the anchor on defense. She has a desire to get to every ball and to keep the team in a rally," coach Michael Moynihan said. "She also brought a great jump float serve and a strong back row attack.
"It wasn't just what she brought on the court, as one of our captains her leadership was a key to our great season."
Elizabeth Berg, Howard senior. Berg was also essential to the Lions' success. She had a team high 276 digs and in 462 serve-receive attempts she made only 39 errors, for a 2.02 serve receive average.
"Lizzie is the reason why we were able to run our fast, powerful offense," Scott said. "Her ability to read the ball, and get to attacks most players would not be able to control, allowed the offense to flow and produce kills ... she is also the first player in my 13 years as a varsity coach to earn a SRA over 2.0 from me."
Berg was also one of the league's best servers, collecting 64 aces on 91 percent serving (309/339), with three service runs of 14 points or more.
Meg Ross, Mt. Hebron senior
Meghan Kelley, Centennial junior
Hannah Pinion, Reservoir senior
Molly Calvert, Glenelg senior
Marissa Duncan, Mt. Hebron senior
Keana Richards, River Hill senior
Right side hitter/libero
Sydni Horner, River Hill senior
IAAM A Conference All-Star
Julia del Carmen, Chapelgate junior outside hitter
IAAM C Conference All-Star
Alexis Foxwell, Glenelg Country junior outside hitter
Marriotts Ridge statistical leaders
Serving: Rachel Dubbs, 31 aces, 189/203, 93.1 %; Christina Kormis, 20 aces, 123/136, 90.4%.
Digs: Christina Kormis, 144; Mikaila Fitzpatrick, 86.
Blocking: Anna Geier, 24; Gabby Peitsch, 21; Allie Desmond, 15.
Setting: Rachel Dubbs, 140; Sarah Canipe, 54; Alina Pacione, 50.
McKenzie Langford, Long Reach senior
Heidi Larsen, Oakland Mills senior
Meghan Morales, Wilde Lake sophomore
Kalala Pines, River Hill senior
Lindsey Scepura, Mt. Hebron senior
Karen Smith, Howard senior
Caroline Winand, Reservoir senior
Nellie Balkarova, Hammond senior
Ellah Ipah, Wilde Lake senior
Shawntel King, Hammond senior
Jennifer Mandl, Atholton senior
Samantha Miller, Atholton freshman
Ravyn Richardson, Mt. Hebron senior
Kelly Surkovich, Wilde Lake junior
Iamni Clayton, Reservoir senior
Carmen Freeman, Wilde Lake freshman
Maya Hairston, Howard senior
Katie Havlik, Centennial senior
Emily Luo, River Hill sophomore
Courtney Merson, Howard senior
Julia Skibniewska, Atholton sophomore
Sam Slebodnik, Oakland Mills senior
Lauren Wright, Glenelg senior
Allie Desmond, Marriotts Ridge junior
Katie Hines, Wilde Lake junior
Reeana Richardson, Mt. Hebron junior
Kristen Ritchie, Centennial senior
Catie Chervenak, Hammond sophomore
Barbara Kelley, Reservoir sophomore
Christina Kormis, Marriotts Ridge senior
Hayley Lala, River Hill senior