Volleyball has been a varsity sport in Howard County for more than 40 years, but the record books will remember Elayna Williams’ 2016 campaign.
The Mt. Hebron senior had a season this fall like no player before, as she tallied 437 kills in 17 matches to set a new single-season county record.
“It obviously makes me really happy and proud of myself knowing that all my hard work has really paid off,” said Williams, who broke the previous record of 432 kills set by Glenelg’s Rachel Girard in 2014. “I can’t really look at the whole big picture until afterward. Records have been kept for a long time so that’s really crazy to me. It’s nice.”
During the record-setting fall, she led the Vikings to one of their best seasons in recent history. They reeled off 15 straight victories to finish 15-2 overall and 10-1 in county play to share the county title with Howard. Their 15 wins tied state-champion Atholton for most wins among county teams.
But it was Williams, who stands 5-foot-10, that stole the show night in and night out. She averaged 7.8 kills per set despite every opposing coach and player knowing she was going to get the ball every third touch. It’s because of that dominance that Williams has been named the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier volleyball Player of the Year.
She’s the first Mt. Hebron player to win the honor since Kristina Kaltreider shared the award with Centennial’s Lisa Chapman in 1998.
“Overall-skill wise, I haven’t coached anybody better than her,” said Mt. Hebron coach Michael Moynihan. “I think it’s not just her physical attributes, which are incredible, but it’s the mental power that she brings to the game. She thinks about the situation: Did they block me line last time? I can cut it. She just adjusts on the fly and she’s not just power, power, power. It really begins from her preparation.
“I’ve had big hitters before, but nobody who played as well as she did all the way across the net and in the back row.”
Four years ago, even Williams wouldn’t have been able to imagine she would rack up 663 kills — 214 more than any county player — over the last two years. She grew up playing soccer and basketball and didn’t pick up a volleyball until sixth grade. Even then she wasn’t the powerful outside hitter she is now — she was a setter for three years on her Columbia Volleyball Club team.
Moynihan, however, said he and the junior varsity coach quickly made the decision to switch her to outside hitter because of team necessity and her obvious skill at hitting the ball.
“When you saw her arm swing there was no way this girl was going to be a setter,” Moynihan said. “Her arm swing was evident from the very first day of tryouts. ... As people saw her skill set you put her where she was going to have the greatest impact on the game, which obviously was as a hitter.”
Williams said she was excited about the switch because she “wasn’t a big fan of setting anyway.”
“I just really liked outside hitter better,” said Williams, who grew three or four inches between her freshman and sophomore year. “It was different but it really opened me up to the game more because those two positions are completely different. It helped being a setter because I understood how much setters have to hustle and knowing the hitters and what they’re asking for.”
The adjustment didn’t take much time and was accelerated by the fact that Amanda Ross, Williams’ club teammate, also switched positions from defensive specialist to setter. The duo, along with libero Maya Takashima, spent all four years together on the court and the chemistry helped Mt. Hebron become a contender.
They also each had immediate success at their new positions. Williams was the top outside hitter for an undefeated JV team her freshman season and started her final three seasons on varsity.
“That trust between me and my teammates: we had that down. If we were ever in some sort of rut they would just send me the ball and I would do everything I could to get the point back or side out,” Williams said. “Over the years I think just playing so much volleyball I learned to move the ball around and make smart choices rather than just whamming the ball.”
Moynihan said Williams had an immediate impact on the court as a raw but talented sophomore, but he remembers a specific moment during that year that foreshadowed her future dominance.
“There was one play where the set was a little too tight and she goes up and just snaps her wrist and the ball goes straight down,” he recalled. “That’s just an innate ability. You don’t learn that from a coach. You just can do it and it was an amazing play. She just continued to grow over the last three years.”
After helping Mt. Hebron to a 9-4 county record and 11-6 overall record in 2014, Williams had a breakthrough season as a junior. She tallied a county-best 226 kills, was named a first-team all-county player and helped the Vikings win eight county matches and nine overall. However, their season came to a quick end in the second round of the 3A East regional playoffs against Centennial.
Motivated by that bitter 3-0 defeat, everything seemed to come together for Mt. Hebron this fall, and Williams was determined to lead the way. She was the Vikings’ go-to hitter from start to finish and accounted for nearly 59 percent of the team’s kills. She added 60 aces, the fourth-most in the league, 127 digs and 14 solo blocks for a Vikings squad that won every match from Sept. 13 to Nov. 9.
Williams had one of her best games of the season against the Eagles on Oct. 4. She had 18 kills in the first two sets and 31 total in the five-set win to avenge the playoff defeat.
“I was just on that game,” she said.
Mt. Hebron continued to roll into the playoffs, but a red-hot Atholton team ended its 15-game winning streak in a five-set thriller in the 3A East regional championship game. Williams has no regrets about the season, though.
“We were working so hard and we had that winning streak after losing our first game to Howard. We were doing so well and having it be in our gym and knowing we had beaten [Atholton] before, we tried to keep that out of our heads and focus on that game,” she said. “Obviously it didn’t work and we fell short, but it was two great teams. I’m still proud of how we did because we played well. We did all we could.”
Williams’ high school career has come to an end but she hopes it’s not the end of her time on the court. She hasn’t committed yet but plans to play collegiately.
“I’m hoping to make a decision this club season,” Williams said. “A lot of them are big Division-I schools so they already have their recruits. I’m hoping I can be able to walk on a team depending on where I choose to go.”
Moynihan said he is going to miss watching Williams jump out of the gym and dominate the court. He says her legacy, however, will live on for years to come.
“The numbers are going to speak for themselves, but I think about the way she nurtures the younger girls on the team,” Moynihan said. “The JV coach will pull her over and talk about hitting with the JV girls and about proper footwork and body alignment rather than just jumping and swinging. Her legacy is that she’s been willing to teach the younger players as she’s dominating. It was always about the team and not about her.”
Also named to the all-county first-team are:
Sydney Allen, Reservoir, sophomore.
A second-year starter as a sophomore, Allen at 5-foot-6 was one of the Gators’ smartest hitters and most consistent servers. She finished the season with 129 kills and 150 digs to give her 226 total kills in her first two varsity campaigns.
“Sydney was a huge help to the team on the court. With her size and playing front row she has to be super smart about her shots and where to place the ball,” said Reservoir coach Jamie Bullock. “She is one of the most coachable players I have had at Reservoir and always wants to learn more. She became a go-to player in the back row as well, putting balls away when set for a back-row attack.”
Bullock added that because of Allen’s size she had to be smart with the ball.
“She doesn’t put away the big huge impressive kills, but she is a player you will remember because she will keep the other team on their toes,” she said. “You won’t know where her next shot will go.”
Her leadership as a young player, however, was the biggest key for the Gators’ 11-win season and 9-0 start to the year. Bullock calls her “a silent leader” whose game “speaks for itself.”
“Sydney is the type of player that a coach loves to have,” she added.
Sam Miller, Atholton, senior.
Miller has been one of the top players in the county over the last two seasons, but stepped up and played her best in the biggest moments this fall. She had 29 total kills in the 3A state semifinal and final — both game highs — to go with five aces and 20 digs to lead the Raiders to their first state championship since 1989.
“Sam provided quiet intensity that demanded the respect of her opponents and won the love and loyalty of her teammates and coaches,” said Atholton coach Rob Moy. “Sam never complained, asked important questions and took the responses and utilized them to her advantage. ... She never shied away from taking the big swing, whether it was early in a set, a clutch moment or in the playoffs. Sam would swing away or dive for the critical dig that would keep us in the match.”
She finished the season with 296 kills (second most in the county), 185 digs (seventh), 61 aces (sixth) and nine blocks, and her 441 kills over the last two seasons are the third most in the league. Miller was also named the MVP at the Westminster Tournament and will play collegiately at Millersville University.
“Sam can’t be replaced,” Moy said. “We only hope that those that follow will recognize the void that will develop as she moves on to college and will raise their game to fill it.”
Sarah Sweet, Howard, senior.
A first-team all-county selection for a second time, Sweet was key behind the Lions’ success. Their 21-county wins in the last two seasons are the most in the league and they shared the county title with Mt. Hebron this fall after falling one game short a year ago.
Sweet finished with a 247 kills (fourth most in the county) and a league-high 83 aces. Her 449 kills since 2015 are the second-most in the league over that span behind Mt. Hebron’s Elayna Williams.
“Sarah was our leader both on and off the court,” said Howard coach Grant Scott. “She took on the responsibility of being a team captain and she was our floor captain whenever she was on the court.”
Scott said Sweet’s love for the game was contagious and is one of the biggest reasons for the team’s success. He also calls her one of the best all-around players to ever play at Howard and is the only player in the last 20 years of the program to lead the team in kills, aces and serve-receive average.
“As players age, many of them lose their love for the game and it becomes more of a job or a chore,” Scott said. “Sarah just loves the game of volleyball.”
Lisa Zoch, Atholton, sophomore.
Alongside Sam Miller, Zoch was part of the league’s top hitting duo that led the Raiders to their first state championship in 27 years. She has also been one of the best servers in the league over the last two seasons with 111 total aces.
“Lisa was that kid that could laugh at her own mistakes and still pump the team up when we were regrouping,” said Atholton coach Rob Moy. “She provided that youthful spark that allowed us to bounce back when we ran into road blocks.”
She finished with 277 kills (third most in the county), 149 digs, 44 aces and 13 blocks. Zoch had 13 kills in the state championship game and three in the final six points of the match.
Moy said she is one of the most instinctive players he has coached.
“Every time Lisa went up she took a quick look at what was available on the court and took the big swing or rolled the ball into the hole of the defense,” he said. “Each and every day Lisa came in with a smile and the ‘goofy’ attitude that relaxed the team when we became tense.”
Julia McKenna, Howard, senior.
Coming off a torn ACL in last year’s playoffs, McKenna never missed a beat this fall.
“That injury, in that moment, could have been career ending,” said Lions coach Grant Scott. “She took the injury in stride and embraced rehab with the goal of being able to get back on the court by the summer.”
She set a school-record for assists on her way to being named first-team all-county in 2015 and this year she racked up 541 assists, second most in the county, for the co-county champion Lions.
“Julia is the engine that drives our offense,” said Scott. “A true setter not only knows how to set a volleyball but who to set and when to set them. Julia could set any ball, any tempo, any player I asked her to, but it is her ability to know when to set them that is the key to her success.”
Scott pointed to her sense of calm as one of McKenna’s best attributes on the court.
“Julia doesn’t get overly excited or upset,” he said. “She is a calming influence that is crucial to having successful team chemistry.”
Emily Przybyla, Centennial, junior.
Before every match and practice, Przyblyla spent 10 minutes or more bouncing sets off the wall over and over. It was that desire to work on the small details that helped her reach new heights this fall.
“Emily does the little things, the technical things that setters need to do to get better that are kind of boring, but she would come in early and do all of it,” said Eagles coach Michael Bossom. “She was instrumental in working with the younger setters.”
She finished with a team-high 51 aces, the sixth-most among league players, the third-most assists in the county (534) and 155 digs. Bossom said she is a role model on the team because of consistency behind the service line and floating balls across the court.
“Emily brought a great consistency with setting so the hitters always knew where the ball would be,” he said. “She was a different type of leader — she was a little more quiet — but she has such a desire to get better. She was like another coach on the court.”
Camryn Allen, Centennial, senior.
Allen was a first-team all-county libero two years ago but spent last season at outside hitter because of team necessity. Back at her natural position this fall, Allen frustrated opposing coaches and players all season with her dominance in serve receive and setting up the offense. Coaches around the league did their best to avoid serves in her direction but did so without much success.
“Her consistent serve receive, we knew we would be in system when she passed the ball,” said Eagles coach Michael Bossom. “It helped everyone else relax.”
Allen finished with a county-best 369 digs and 41 aces, but it was her effort off the court that made the biggest impact for one of the best teams in the county.
“She has a great work ethic, intensity and a desire to win,” Bossom said. “She did that in the weight room as well as in the gym. She was a great leader and made everyone around her better. She helped the less-experienced passers feel comfortable knowing that she was going to get the rest of the court.”
Allen will play volleyball collegiately at Towson University next year.
Christina Kundrat, Howard, junior.
A three-year starter, Kundrat took over as the team’s go-to middle hitter this fall and was a threat for a big kill or block at any time. She helped take the pressure off Sarah Sweet and gave setter Julia McKenna another reliable option.
“She has consistently improved in every facet of the game — hitting, blocking, serving, passing and defense,” said Howard coach Grant Scott. “The coaching staff knew Christina was going to be an impact player the minute she stepped into the gym during the first day of tryouts.”
At 5-foot-11, Kundrat was a presence in the middle. She finished with 123 kills, but was also effective on serve and blocking. Her 44 aces and 30 blocks were both in the top-12 among league players.
“There are a lot of people who play middle, but not many middle hitters,” Scott said. “Christina is a true middle hitter and role model for others to follow both on and off the court.”
Scott said he expects Kundrat to relish the role of being the team leader next fall.
“I can always count on Christina to give the team everything she has to give,” he said. “She is a leader both on and off the court and we will be counting on her to be that consistent team leader next season.”