A new day is dawning in Howard County volleyball. With first-year coaches at seven of the 14 schools, Howard becoming the county's first 4A school and only three returning first-team all-county players, the potential for new storylines is great.
Led by two-time first-team all-county hitter Morgan Perry (148 kills, 243 digs last season), and first-year coach Jason Monjes, four-time state champion Glenelg is in good position to improve on last season's 10-3 league record. The Gladiators, who have also lost four times in the state championship match, will be bolstered by middle hitters Molly Calvert and Lauren Wright, and outside hitter Sarah Girard.
Perry's Columbia Volleyball Club team competed at nationals during the offseason, and Girard represented Team USA at an invitational tournament in China over the summer. All four players are athletic and stand 5'10" or taller.
"This is one of the most experienced teams that Glenelg will have," said Monjes, who has more than 17 years of coaching experience at the club, high school and college level. "Aside from Morgan Perry, Glenelg will have many offensive threats and will be a much more balanced and quicker team this year with great depth off the bench with the added club experience this past season."
Howard, which faces the daunting task of moving up to Class 4A — the biggest among Maryland schools — this season, is well-equipped for the challenge, with powerhouse hitter Sydney Biniak (166 kills, 168 digs, 68 aces) on the court.
Along with middle hitter Maya Hairston and junior setter Hanna Webster, the Lions — who went on a memorable playoff run to the 3A East regional finals last year — will have an imposing trio of near-six-footers.
Howard is "independent, confident, and dedicated to the team, not the individual," said coach Grant Scott, who is in his 12th year with the Lions.
The team that knocked Howard out of the playoffs last year — 14-time state champion Centennial — has never been one to overlook.
Middle hitter Jessie Link, who joins Perry and Biniak as the league's only returning all-county first-teamers, has developed tremendously in the past few seasons, posting a career year in 2012 with 112 kills and only 16 hitting errors.
Seniors Kristen Ritchie (109 kills) and Katie Havlik (64), and junior Meghan Kelley (169) combined for 342 more kills last season, but the Eagles will sorely miss Player of the Year Trisha Mockapetris (league-best 229 kills), who took Centennial back to the state finals last year.
"Losing Trisha and (setter) Lexi White-Torruellas meant losing strong leadership as well as volleyball skills," coach Larry Schofield said. "Bonding as a team, '15 hearts beating as one,' is crucial for our success."
Mt. Hebron (libero Mallory Baldwin and setter Megan Ross) and River Hill (libero Sydni Horner) each return all-county second team players and won ten matches last season, so those teams will also likely be in the mix for the county title.
And once that has been decided, Howard County teams will attempt to send a representative to the state finals for the 26th consecutive season. In fact, with Howard now classified as a 4A school, the county could potentially send three teams to a state championship match.
Among the seven coaches who stepped down after last season, Hammond's Ken McLaughlin (19 years of experience) and Glenelg's Don Beall (nine years) were the most tenured. Beall, who coached the Gladiators to a state title in 2005 but was classified as an emergency coach, decided to leave the program after being asked to step down as basketball coach last winter, and McLaughlin hung up his coaching whistle due to family commitments.
Reservoir's Carole Ferrante, who led the Gators to the state finals in 2006 and a state championship one year later, steps down to focus on club volleyball after seven years, while Atholton's Dave Decker, Long Reach's Jacqueline Armstead and Oakland Mills' Dan Tucci had each been at their schools for six seasons. Decker, who coached Atholton to a win over Centennial in 2011 that ended a 49-match league win streak, is taking time off to raise his two young sons but says he will be back someday. Tucci also planned to continue coaching, and Armstead decided to step down to focus on work, her son Everett's sports and her recent engagement.
"I miss the girls like crazy and wish them the best of luck this year," she said.
Rob Moy, the new coach at Atholton, has been coaching since the early 1990s, and has significant experience coaching freshmen and JV at Centennial, as well as serving as an assistant at Goucher last season.
At Long Reach, Frank Valenza has coached lacrosse, wrestling, soccer and ice hockey for more than 25 years, but has never coached volleyball until now.
"I love to coach so I took the position," he said. "I Googled everything I needed to know about girls volleyball."