It's two weeks into the 2013 Howard County volleyball season, and something just doesn't seem right.
A quick glance at the league standings shows three undefeated teams — Glenelg, Mt. Hebron and Wilde Lake — and none of them are 14-time state champion Centennial, or River Hill, which has been to the state championship match twice in the past five years.
In fact, Centennial lost its 2013 season debut in straight sets to Howard, the school that many picked to contend for Howard County and Class 4A state titles this year.
"Howard is amazing," said Mt. Hebron coach Michael Moynihan, whose team is led by versatile setter Meg Ross. "Everybody knew what Howard had, (beating Centennial) wasn't a surprise."
But even the powerful Lions, who are now part of Maryland's largest classification, haven't made it through the first two weeks unscathed, losing an epic five-game match to Glenelg on Sept. 16.
The Gladiators, led by first-year coach Jason Monjes and two-time all-county hitter Morgan Perry (58 kills through only three matches), have turned heads in the early going.
"That kind of shook off our ego a little bit and made us really crack down," said Howard junior setter Hanna Webster. "We can't just beat every team, we have to try hard."
Indeed, the Lions responded to that loss by taking out River Hill three days later, despite a strong block by the Hawks front line of Kalala Pines, Keana Richards and Emily Luo.
"I've always had the horses, just not enough to win it all," said Howard coach Grant Scott, who feels that this year could be the year of the Lion.
For their part, Centennial and River Hill have no plans to go away quietly after sustaining early setbacks.
"I'm very pleased with what I see. It makes me very excited about the rest of the season, because I think we're going to be extremely competitive in the county, if not the state," River Hill coach Lynn Paynter said.
Centennial coach Larry Schofield, whose Eagles will visit River Hill on Oct. 3 and Glenelg on Oct. 8, shares a similar sentiment.
"I thought I had a good lineup and I still do. I've got five or six hitters I can put out there at any one time," said Schofield, whose top hitters include Jessie Link, Meghan Kelley and Kristen Ritchie.
The 2013 Howard County volleyball title will likely be decided during the month of October. Even though Glenelg now has the inside track, the Gladiators still have stiff tests against River Hill (Sept. 24, too late for this edition), Mt. Hebron (Oct. 1), and a highly anticipated rematch at Howard on Oct. 24 left on the schedule.
"This is kind of what I envisioned. I knew Howard was going to be very good this year, especially moving up to 4A. I think they're going to make a lot of noise," said Glenelg coach Jason Monjes, whose team has served at a 90 percent clip with 44 aces so far this season. "Beating Howard definitely gave us confidence. I think we have a good shot (at the county title) if we can stay balanced (on offense)."
And as it does every year, all of this in-county battling can only help the local teams once the postseason begins. Especially Howard, which will be going up against a challenge no Howard County team has ever faced before.
"(Class) 4A is known for power hitters, stronger, tougher teams and we just know that we can handle them," Howard senior hitter Sydney Biniak said. "Last year we got knocked out in the regional finals and (Centennial) ended up going to the state finals so we definitely could see ourselves there."