Just before Howard's girls basketball team tipped off at Reservoir two weeks ago, Lions coach Scott Robinson handed his players pieces of paper and asked them to jot down their impressions of the seniors.
They all wrote the same things about Sydney Biniak: "great role model," "great teammate," or both.
To Biniak, Howard's 6-foot center, that meant a lot. She'd rather be known as a great teammate than a star player. But as a standout on three straight Howard County championship teams, she has to settle for both.
The pivotal post player and a spark in transition for the No. 11 Lions (20-2), Biniak also was named Gatorade State Volleyball Player of the Year in the fall and won the state Class 3A high jump last spring just five weeks after her first attempt.
"She's probably the best pure athlete I've ever coached," said Howard volleyball coach Grant Scott, a 15-year veteran of high school and club volleyball. "If I tell her, 'I bet you can't do something,' within 10 minutes, she's figured out how to do it. She's just got pure athletic skill, but with it, she's got the brains and the drive to be the best."
Biniak, who plans to play volleyball in college, has had more individual success in volleyball and track, but her role on the basketball team best fits her personality.
The Lions, who have allowed more than 40 points only five times this season, are a defense-driven team that succeeds as a unit. Second in scoring with 9.8 points a game, Biniak leads Howard in rebounds (8.5 a game) and in assists.
"She puts the team above herself," senior point guard Emma Hoesman said. "She likes to blend in. She doesn't really want to stand out. She cares more about the team than focusing on her individual skill, which makes her stand out to us."
As the Lions prepare to host Blake in the Class 4A North Section II semifinal at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Robinson said Biniak's height, quickness and agility make her more than just a force on the boards, where she had as many as 18 rebounds in one game.
"She's a one-man press break," Robinson said. "Even when she gets a rebound, she can take it coast to coast. Teams have a difficult time pressing us because we can get it in to her and she can dribble, but she also has a great two-hand, overhand pass. She's got a great throwing arm."
It's the same arm she uses to smash a volleyball.
Last fall, she had 321 kills and a .485 kill percentage as the No. 5 Lions reached the regional final. An outside hitter, The Baltimore Sun's All-Metro Player of the Year led Howard to an upset of three-time Class 4A champion Sherwood in the sectional championship.
"I think that was the highlight of the year," Biniak said. "For us to beat the three-time defending state champs in our home gym was a great feeling. That, and beating Glenelg. They were the only team that beat us in the county, so for us to beat them in our home gym, too, was great."
Both matches went to five games, and Biniak sealed both victories.
"If there is a moment that defines her, it would probably be the last two points of the Glenelg match," Scott said. "Whoever wins it gets the county championship. We're winning 14-12. She gets set and gets blocked. The Glenelg fans go nuts. The Howard fans go, 'Whoa, Sydney got blocked. That doesn't happen.' The very next touch of the ball, my setter feeds Sydney and she crushes it to win, 15-13."
As much as she shuns the limelight afterward, Biniak wants the ball with the game on the line.
"She's the kind of athlete who lives for those moments," Scott said. "She's the most modest, down-to-earth kid and she doesn't like people talking about her, but she loves the pressure."
She also loves a challenge, and that's how her All-Metro high jump career began. She had been competing in the triple jump and long jump when Howard coach David Glenn decided to try her in the high jump during a county meet. Biniak loved it.
"When you run up to the bar and you jump, then there's this rush that comes over you when you make it over," she said. "When I made the [5-foot-6 jump] at states, the rush I felt after making it, feeling so good, you can't compare anything to it."
That 5-6 would have won all four classifications at the state meet. This spring, she wants to break the school record of 5-7.
Glenn has coached Howard high jumpers for 25 years and wasn't surprised that Biniak excelled so quickly.
"She's very coachable. She really listens and she's such a competitor," Glenn said. "She does not like to lose. When she didn't win the regions, she wasn't vocal at all, but you could tell it was bothering her."
The week before the state finals, Biniak worked on her approach and her form. Glenn thought she could finish in the top three.
"I wasn't sure she was going to win," Glenn said. "There were a couple girls out there who really looked good, but when it came down to crunch time, they started overthinking, and she doesn't overthink."
For "a minute," Biniak said with a laugh, she thought about continuing with the high jump in college, but she stuck with volleyball. A veteran of the Columbia Volleyball Club with a 4.5 weighted GPA, she didn't spend much time on the recruiting process, committing to the Terps at a camp last summer.
In the last few months, however, Biniak played a waiting game with the Terps after a coaching turnover. That wait came to a crushing end Monday when she received a letter from new Terps coach Steve Aird saying that he would not offer her the scholarship she expected.
Once her disappointment ebbs a bit, Biniak will look for an even better fit, a place she missed by not going through the recruiting process with any other school.
“Knowing Sydney, she’s not going to let this bring her down, not at all,” Glenn said. “She’s got (basketball) playoffs, so she’ll refocus on that and then she’ll make another decision. She’ll bounce back even stronger.”
After all, she’s don’t it before, answering that block in the Glenelg match with the game winning kill and rebounding from losing the regional high jump final with winning the state championship.
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