Last year, the powerhouse teams in Howard County volleyball were evident from the beginning of the season all the way until the end.
Howard, led by eventual Player of the Year Sydney Biniak, and Glenelg, led by three-time first-team selection Morgan Perry, were tabbed as the favorites to contend for a county title entering the season, and that's exactly how things panned out. Howard defeated Glenelg in five sets for the county championship on the last day of the regular season.
The Lions eventually lost to Dulaney in the 4A regional championship, Glenelg fell to Damascus in the state semifinals, and for the first time in 25 years Howard County was not represented in the state finals.
This fall, things appear much murkier as the season gets under way.
"It's a new season. The majority of our county championship team has graduated. We will strive to achieve that same level of success, but we are not here to compare ourselves to the past," Howard coach Grant Scott said. "My bet is that it will be another very competitive season with multiple teams having a chance to win the county title."
Both Glenelg and Howard return all-county players — Sarah Girard (212 kills, 61 aces, 342 digs) and Rachael Girard (675 assists, 62 aces) for the Gladiators, and setter Hanna Webster (592 assists) for the Lions — but those teams also graduated a wealth of starting talent, including Biniak and Perry.
"Although young in high school experience, many of (our) newer players have competed at a high level at the club level," said Glenelg coach Jason Monjes. "The team may be a touch shorter in physical height, (but we are) quicker and more athletic ... I think the county is more wide open than last year, but expect Glenelg to compete near the top."
Two other teams that were hit hard by graduation, but are coming off of outstanding seasons, are Mt. Hebron and River Hill. Each team graduated multiple all-county players, but have shown promise in the preseason.
One team that many coaches have pointed to as a possible surprise county-title contender is Wilde Lake, which won 10 matches last year and returns four starters, including prolific setter Meghan Morales (244 assists, 43 aces) and dynamic outside hitter Kelly Surkovich (95 kills, 123 digs).
"Wilde Lake returns the most, I feel, and lost the least," Monjes said.
While Marriotts Ridge won only four matches against league competition, the Mustangs will similarly return more experience than most teams in the league. Coach Amanda Olsen counts seven players on her squad with starting experience, including junior setter Rachel Dubbs (140 assists, 31 aces).
"We have a solid senior class this season, supported by some outstanding juniors," Olsen said. "I expect my team to be competitive this year. My returning players are looking very good together, and I think we have a strong core group."
Reservoir, led by powerful senior hitter Maddy Belt, could also be a force.
The season kicks off on Friday, Sept. 5 as Hammond hosts Northeast, Centennial visits Broadneck, Oakland Mills travels to Owings Mills and Reservoir heads to Archbishop Spalding. On Tuesday, Sept. 9, league play begins with all 12 public schools in action.
After the county welcomed seven new coaches last year, this fall will be much quieter. The county's lone new coach, though, is a notable one.
Michael Bossom, who coached Centennial to eight state championships between 1994 and 2005, returns to the Eagles after nine seasons coaching the Goucher College volleyball team. He takes over for his former assistant at Centennial, Larry Schofield, who steps down after seven seasons.
Schofield, who led the Eagles to the 2008 state championship, as well as state finals appearances in 2010 and 2012, said that he decided to take a break from high school coaching, and Bossom — who never left his position as a physical education teacher at Centennial — was looking to get back into high school coaching. Both Bossom and Schofield also coach with the Columbia Volleyball Club.
Rob Moy, Atholton's head coach and an assistant under Bossom at Centennial for several years, expects Bossom's return to Howard County to have an immediate impact.
"Bossom has a different way of spinning things," Moy said. "He's amazing."
Or, as Howard head coach Grant Scott puts it, "you can never count out Centennial with Bossom on the bench."
Bossom, for his part, admits that there might be an adjustment period early this fall, though do-it-all outside hitter Meghan Kelley provides a strong foundation.
"The key to our success will be how quickly the players adapt to a different way of doing things, what they are willing to sacrifice to be successful, how well they come together as a team, and how much they can focus on the little things," he said.
A look at all 14 local teams as the season begins.
*2013 First-team all-county; ^2013 Second-team all-county
2013 record: 2-11 league, 2-13 overall
Coach: Rob Moy, second season
Returning starters: 4
Players to watch: Seniors Olivia Na (RS) and Chelsea Mitchell (MH); junior Julia Skibniewska (OH); sophomores Samantha Miller (OH) and Hope Kelly (S/RS); freshman Brooke Mason (MH).
Scouting report: Moy inherited a young team last year, and the Raiders will be young again this season. Two sophomores, Miller (79 kills, 32 aces as a freshman) and Kelly, and a talented freshman, Mason, are expected to be major contributors.
Skibniewska, with 76 kills and 13 blocks last year, will pair with Miller to give Atholton an imposing tandem of outside hitters.
A wild card for the Raiders could be Mitchell, a standout basketball player who has been away from volleyball for a few years, but has the athleticism to be a potential game-changer.
"She's relearning the game, so I'm hoping that by the middle of the season she can really be a force," Moy said. "I'm really excited to see how we do. We have a lot of talent coming back."
Key number: 8. Matches in which Atholton was swept three games to none last season, a number that Moy is intent on changing this fall.
2013 record: 7-6, 9-8
Coach: Michael Bossom, first season (13th overall at Centennial)
Returning starters: 3
Players to watch: Seniors Meghan Kelley^ (OH), Chloe Attram (MH) and Monika Buczak (MH/RS); juniors Emily Allen (OH) and Elizabeth Kwon (S); sophomores Camryn Allen (L/DS) and Sabrina Han (S).
Scouting report: Bossom makes no pretenses about the effect of his time away from Howard County volleyball, admitting that his knowledge "isn't much at this point."
But the veteran coach hasn't been under a rock for the last ten years — he has continued teaching physical education all this time at Centennial — and his experience as a coach at all levels of the game should make the transition back to high school volleyball a relative cinch.
Having a team leader and all-around contributor like Kelley (133 kills, 48 aces, 122 digs last season) to build around is a big help. The Allen sisters, Emily (81 kills) and Camryn (210 digs), saw plenty of court time last year, and Attram and Buczak also got some varsity seasoning in spot duty.
Kwon and Han will share the setting duties in a 6-2 offense this fall.
Key number: 6. Service errors — in 197 attempts — by senior captain Jessie Link last season. Link also contributed 90 kills, 82 digs, and 15 blocks, numbers that will sorely be missed by the Eagles this year.
2013 record: 11-2, 15-3, 3A East regional champion
Coach: Jason Monjes, second season
Returning starters: 3
Players to watch: Seniors Sarah Girard* (OH) and Elissa Dorsey (DS); juniors Rachael Girard* (S), Kristen Thesing (L) and Maryellyn Musselman (MH); sophomore Kara Crawford (OH).
Scouting report: It's easy to focus on what Glenelg graduated last year — almost 600 kills, 110 aces and 100 blocks from the fearsome trio of Morgan Perry, Molly Calvert and Lauren Wright — and be discouraged, but the Gladiators still return most talent than most teams in the league.
With Sarah (212 kills, 61 aces, county best 342 digs) and Rachael Girard (62 aces, 123 digs, county best 675 assists) plugged in at key positions, Monjes immediately has plenty to be confident about.
Dorsey and Thesing (38 aces, 158 digs) are both experienced varsity players, and should shore up Glenelg's backcourt defense alongside the Girards. At 5-foot-11, Musselman will be leaned on to replace the lost defense at the net, and her experience with the East Coast Elite team that participated in the USA Volleyball National Championships should give her an advantage.
Crawford is unproven at the varsity level, but has good height and versatility for a sophomore, and should make for a nice second option on offense.
Key number: 5. Total points that separated the Gladiators from a county championship and state finals appearance last year. Glenelg lost, 15-13, to Howard in the fifth set of the county title match, and 15-12 to Damascus in the fifth set of the 3A state semifinals. "The sour taste of being 3 points away from the (state finals) leaves for some unfinished business and extra motivation," Monjes said.
2013 record: 2-11, 4-13
Coach: Anne Corey, second season
Returning starters: 4
Players to watch: Senior Brianna Myers (OH); juniors Catie Chervenak (L), Lauryn Terry (MH) and Bahar Lakeh (S); sophomore Cheyenne Monthe (S/OH/RS).
Scouting report: Only in her second year acclimating to a new school, Corey was encouraged by an enthusiastic turnout this summer.
"I have already seen great growth in the volleyball program," she said. "We had many strong candidates for each team this fall."
The Golden Bears also had a number of excellent players coming back, led by Chervenak — one of the top defensive players in the league — and Terry — a standout basketball center who could be a dominant force at the net. Myers, a senior captain, will be looked to for veteran leadership and consistent production on offense.
Lakeh was on varsity last year, but did not see much playing time. She has shown Corey enough in the preseason, though, to inspire confidence at the setter position. Monthe, the youngest player on the team, is still finding a position, but with her excellent hands she will likely contribute at setter alongside Lakeh eventually.
"We pride ourselves on our sportsmanship and passion for the game," Corey said. "We will be a strong force this year, and I expect us to improve on past records."
Key number: 75. Height, in inches, of Terry (6-foot-3), one of the tallest players in the league.
2013 record: 12-1, 15-2, county champion, 4A North regional finalist
Coach: Grant Scott, third season (13th overall)
Returning starters: 2
Players to watch: Seniors Hanna Webster* (S), Janie Kalinock (RS) and Dasha Johnson (OH); sophomore Sara Binkley (MH).
Scouting report: Like Glenelg, Howard will be focusing on crafting a successful 2014 season while also basking in the aftermath of the outstanding individual and team performances of 2013.
Sydney Biniak's 321 kills, 43 aces, 232 digs and 33 blocks will be sorely missed, as will the prolific contributions of Courtney Merson (161 kills, 43 blocks, 32 aces), Maya Hairston (131 kills, 56 blocks) and Lizzie Berg (276 digs). Karen Smith (167 digs, 85 assists), Jamie Carey (99 digs) and Allison Holland (80 kills) were also key senior contributors.
"We will be a tough team to beat, but with only two returning starters from last season, it will be difficult to fill all of those holes right away," Scott said.
The Lions are not completely empty handed, though, and in Webster, they have one of the best setters in the state. The three-year starter tallied 592 assists, 37 aces, 128 digs and 15 blocks last year. She'll need to get used to some new offensive targets this fall, but Kalinock (54 kills, 26 blocks) and Johnson (36 kills) are no rookies.
Binkley, a 5-foot-9 middle, is the Lions' top newcomer.
Key number: 13. Consecutive matches won by the Lions before a 4A North regional championship loss to eventual state champion Dulaney, derailing Howard's most successful season in more than 30 years. The win streak also included a championship at the Thomas Johnson Invitational.
2013 record: 0-13, 0-14
Coach: Frank Valenza, second season
Returning starters: 2
Players to watch: Senior Sam Samples (DS/S); junior Abby Bakunas (OH); freshman Madison Paige (OH).
Scouting report: After failing to win a match last year, Valenza and the Lightning still have a tough road ahead this fall with only two players back with significant varsity experience. Long Reach graduated a strong senior class, led by veteran setter McKenzie Langford.
Samples was one of the team's top defenders last year, but could be turned to for help at setter while the search for a regular starter continues. Bakunas is a solid option at hitter after starting last year as a sophomore.
Valenza is especially excited about club experience Paige.
"She could probably make any team in the county," he said. "It's always good to have someone on the court who knows the game."
Key number: 70. Height, in inches, of Paige, one of the most promising rookies in the county.
2013 record: 4-9, 6-10
Coach: Amanda Olsen, seventh season
Returning starters: 7
Players to watch: Seniors Allie Desmond (RS), Julia Kim (L), Anna Geier (MH) and Mikaila Fitzpatrick (DS/OH); juniors Rachel Dubbs (S) and Molly Meininger (OH); sophomore Gabby Peitsch (MH).
Scouting report: Don't be fooled by last year's record. The Mustangs are one of the most experienced, talented teams in the league, and a return to the upper tier is not out of the question.
A strong senior class, led by Desmond (15 blocks), Geier (24 blocks), and Fitzpatrick (86 digs), will be bolstered by returning setter Dubbs, who led the team last season in serving (31 aces, 93.1 percent) and assists (140).
"We have a solid senior class this season, supported by some outstanding juniors," Olsen said. "I have been very impressed with Rachel. She came into the season focused and determined."
Peitsch made an impact last year as a freshman, and gives the Mustangs a wealth of imposing blockers at the net.
Key number: 1. Longest winning streak by the Mustangs last year.
2013 record: 11-2, 14-4, 3A East regional finalist
Coach: Michael Moynihan, 13th season
Returning starters: 2
Players to watch: Seniors Reeana Richardson (OH), Cammy Case (OH) and Cheryl Dombrowski (S/DS); junior Gabrielle Green (MH); sophomore Elayna Williams (OH).
Scouting report: The Vikings enjoyed an extremely successful season last fall, but they are now experiencing the fallout of a senior-heavy team.
"We graduated 8 seniors including both starting (middles), setters and both of our (defensive specialist) players and the Libero," Moynihan said. "We are a young team (3 sophomores) that is looking to grow and improve as the season progresses."
Richardson, whose older sister Ravyn starred for the Vikings last year, can hit with the best players in the league, having racked up 139 kills last year to go along with her 41 blocks.
Case also has varsity experience, but the rest of the team will essentially be learning on the fly.
Key number: 698. Digs contributed by the excellent senior defensive quartet of Mallory Baldwin (322), Victoria Ketner (150), Lindsey Scepura (122) and Meg Ross (104) last season. More than 350 kills, 200 aces, 130 blocks and 500 assists also walked across the stage on graduation day.
2013 record: 3-10, 4-11
Coach: Shelby Foley, second season
Returning starters: 4
Players to watch: Seniors Raven Blount (L), Hannah Larsen (S), Allia Mostafa (DS) and Kendall Davis (RS); juniors Courtney Wilhelm (OH) and Alli Eastham (S); sophomore Alana Joseph (OH).
Scouting report: Last season may have been a momentum builder for the Scorpions, who return several key pieces — including veteran setter Larsen — while adding a handful of promising newcomers, headlined by Eastham and Joseph.
"Our program has had a make-over," said Foley, who anticipates an upset of a larger school this fall. "We are carrying our largest roster ever, which includes four sophomores. We are hoping to perform better than we ever had in my four years with the team."
Key number: 3. Consecutive wins to start the season for Oakland Mills last year, though that was followed by a 10 match losing streak.
2013 record: 6-7, 7-8
Coach: Jamie Bullock, second season
Returning starters: 2
Players to watch: Senior Maddy Belt (OH); junior Barbara Kelley (L); sophomore Amaka Chukwujekwu (MH).
Scouting report: After hanging around near the middle of the pack last season, Reservoir could be a surprise team to compete for the county title this fall.
Belt (73 kills, 82 digs) missed some time due to injury last year, but when healthy could be one of the most dangerous hitters in the league. Kelley (149 digs) could likewise be one of the best defensive players in the county. The duo earned a trip to nationals with their club team during the offseason.
Next to the 6-foot-1 Belt, Chukwujekwu gives the Gators a pair of six-footers at the net.
"Our focus this year is to be a family," Bullock said. "It has always been my tradition to have the girls really enjoy being around each other. This season already in the first week the girls have planned team bonding activities without my help or suggestions ... once they have the bond off the court the team chemistry really comes together."
Key number: 37. Sets played by Belt last fall, less than any of the other top 25 hitters in the league.
2013 record: 11-2, 13-3
Coach: Lynn Paynter, fifth season
Returning starters: 4
Players to watch: Senior Ariana Taj (MH/RS); juniors Emily Luo (MH), Brianna Davis (S), Sammy Lala (OH), Isabel Paci (OH) and Hannah Siaurusaitis (MH/RS).
Scouting report: Though they graduated a starting line-up worth of top-level talent, it is never wise to bet against the Hawks. Luo will miss the first few weeks of the season while recovering from a knee injury, but once back, she should be one of the county's most effective middle hitters.
"She's excited about coming back," Paynter said. "If we put it together we could be pretty good, but we are young."
Davis gained valuable experience as a varsity setter last season, and should be able to hit the court running this fall. Lala and Paci also earned varsity letters last year, and Taj will provide veteran leadership. Siaurusaitis was a JV standout last year, but made great strides in the offseason and will look to make a similar impact at the varsity level this fall.
Key number: 4. Players who served at 90 percent or better for the Hawks last year: Kalala Pines (98 percent), Luo (96.6), Sydni Horner (95.0) and Hayley Lala (90.0).
2013 record: 9-4, 10-6
Coach: Caitlin Williams, seventh season
Returning starters: 4
Players to watch: Seniors Kelly Surkovich (OH) and Katie Hines (RS); junior Meghan Morales (S); sophomores Carmen Freeman (MH) and Camille Johnson (RS).
Scouting report: Wilde Lake's strength this season isn't in what it gained since last year, but what it already had in house. Surkovich (95 kills, 123 digs) is the kind of all-over-the-court player that coaches love, and Morales (244 assists, 43 aces) could be one of the league's best setters.
Hines is an asset at the net, from the service line (35 aces, 94.9 percent), and on defense (106 digs). Freeman (79 kills, 33 blocks) and the six-foot tall Johnson could be two of the best young hitters in the league.
"We are a well-rounded group with good chemistry, shared goals, and great player leadership," Williams said.
Key number: 5. Matches won by shutout for the Wildecats last year.
2013 record: 3-6 IAAM A Conference, 4-11
Coach: Jess Weakley, third season
Returning starters: 4
Players to watch: Seniors Julia del Carmen (OH) and Phoebe Cleaver (RS); junior Jianna Casamento (S); sophomore Rachel del Carmen (OH); freshmen Dani D'Ascenzo (DS) and Jacqueline Ryan (MH).
Scouting report: As one of the smallest schools in the A Conference, Chapelgate's 3-6 league record last year was admirable. But this fall, the Yellowjackets move down to the B Conference, where they'll look to show what they learned battling against the bigger schools.
"Over the last couple of years, Chapelgate volleyball has been building. This year, some of the missing elements are in place, and we expect to be competing with the best teams in the conference at the end of the season," Weakley said. "This year’s team has confidence, composure, and a team-first attitude. They are ready to make great things happen."
Julia del Carmen has proven herself as one of the best private school players in the state, and will be the team's foundation. Her little sister, Rachel, should follow in Julia's footsteps after playing libero last year, and a pair of freshmen — D'Ascenzo and Ryan — also bring new excitement to the club.
Senior captain Cleaver and returning setter Casamento will be relied on to guide the team with their veteran leadership.
Weakley expects defending champion Roland Park to be the toughest competition, along with Mercy, Catholic and Bryn Mawr.
Key number: 188. Kills by Julia del Carmen last year. She also contributed 42 service aces and an excellent 2.55 passing average, making her an obvious conference All-Star selection.
2013 record: 3-5 IAAM C Conference, 3-6
Coach: Dennis Seibel, second season
Returning starters: 7
Players to watch: Seniors Alexis Foxwell (OH) and Lizzy Musaga (DS); junior Sarah Gibney (S/OH); sophomore Jordan Daitch (DS); freshman Grace McCarthy (OH).
Scouting report: The Dragons held their own in the C Conference last year, and with 2013 champion St. Pauls and runner-up Mount Carmel graduating to the B Conference, there might be room for a new contender to ascend to the crown.
Glenelg Country is well-equipped to compete, with Foxwell — a returning conference All-Star — returning as one of the league's best all-around players. Gibney, who returns as the team's main setter, has a built-in rapport with Foxwell, and Musaga can be counted on to play solid back row defense. Daitch and McCarthy give the Dragons a pair of exciting newcomers to keep an eye on.
"Our keys to success will be finding a second setter to allow Sarah Gibney to pass and hit," Seibel said. "Another essential element of team success will be to improve our serve percentage and passing to the setter to allow for more hitting attempts."
Seibel expects Annapolis Area Christian — which moved down from the B Conference after last season — and St. Timothys — last year's regular season runner-up — to be the teams to beat this fall.
Key number: 5. Newcomers to the varsity that Seibel will attempt to integrate alongside the seven players with starting experience.