A perfect play in volleyball almost always ends with a powerful spike by an outside or middle hitter that crashes to the floor. It’s also the most exciting and entertaining part of the game; it’s like a home run in baseball or a slam dunk in basketball. The combination of strength and athleticism warrants attention.
A kill, however, isn’t possible without the two touches before it: the dig and the set. Oftentimes that second hit is the most overlooked, but ask anyone familiar with the game and they’ll say it might be the most crucial part of the game.
“Setters are, I think, one of the most essential positions on the court,” said Mt. Hebron coach Tina Catanach, “and having a setter who can think about her offense and think about what’s on the other side of the court and be a leader and be aggressive and be willing to take risks makes a team really successful.”
For the county champion Vikings this fall, that player was senior Sam Giles. A three-year starting setter, Giles was the “quarterback” of the team, Catanach said, and the lone setter on a team that featured several strong hitters but none that were dominant or took over games. That makes the overlooked setter’s job all the more important, and Giles’ play quietly made everyone around her excel.
Giles, however, is now getting her due. She is this year’s Howard County Times/Columbia Flier volleyball Player of the Year and is the first setter to win the honor this decade.
She said she was “shocked” to learn that she was the player of the year.
“I didn’t expect to get it at all. I hadn’t even thought of it, to tell you the truth, because it usually goes to big outside hitters, and for it to go to a setter was just unexpected,” Giles said. “I guess looking back, it makes sense ... because we weren’t dependent on one really big hitter, like everything was really spread out. We had amazing hitters like Mogan (Amos) on the outside and Sara (Paradisi) on the right side and three amazing middles, so we weren’t reliant on one single person. The entire team, really, is what allowed us to win, and I feel I was the one that really brought everyone together and made it all click.”
“I think Sam getting recognition for all the hard work she’s put in and all the thought she’s put into it is huge, and I think it’s huge for the area as well,” Catanach said. “Finally it’s not just, oh this girl can bang a volleyball, but look at this kid who made a team that nobody really thought was going to do much incredibly successful. ... She bought into everything I tried to put into place this year and her leadership this year kind of set the tone, and everyone kind of fell in place behind her.”
This season, Giles had the second-most assists in the county with 519, to go along with 136 digs and 18 assisted blocks. She was also one of the best servers in the county, with a team-high 39 aces while serving at 96 percent with only 11 errors in 272 attempts.
Giles did a little bit of everything for a team that had few expectations but exceeded them and then some. Teams like Atholton, Glenelg and Reservoir were favored to win the league, and Giles said her team relished the role of the underdog. It was fuel to their fire and something they talked about consistently.
“It was great. We were underdogs every game we went in to. People were like, oh, they might win, but I don’t know, and even throughout the beginning of the season people were saying we were winning but we won’t be for long,” Giles said. “For us to keep that up and to prove ourselves was really amazing. It was a great feeling.”
Mt. Hebron finished the season 10-1 in county play to win its second county title in four years and was 13-3 overall. The Vikings beat county runner-up Marriotts Ridge twice — once in the regular season and again on the road in the playoffs — in four sets to affirm its status as the league’s best before losing to Westminster in the region final. While the Vikings beat Glenelg on the road in the season finale to win the county championship, Giles said the highlight of the season was beating the Mustangs in the postseason.
“A lot of people said we should have tied for the county championship because we both went 10-1, but we beat them,” she said, “and for us to go and beat them again really just assured our point that we were how good we say we are and that people should stop doubting us.”
Marriotts Ridge coach Jamie Bullock saw firsthand how Giles impacted a game. She said Giles was the key to everything Mt. Hebron did.
“I think for a team like Hebron running a 5-1 [five hitters, one setter], you can’t overlook the setter because if you don’t have her you’re not as successful as they were,” Bullock said. “You have at least six different hitters you’re trying to keep up with, and you’ve got to make sure you’re putting the ball in the exact spot and consistently for each of your hitters, no matter what the first pass is. She’s the one that’s really able to better the ball and make her hitters as amazing as they are.”
Giles’ progression didn’t happen overnight, however. As a sophomore, she said she was focused on herself and trying to get acclimated to the varsity level. Last year she was a second-team All-County selection and that is when she realized her role was to pull everyone together “and become a team,” she said. “Because I had those two years of experience, by the time this year came I was ready for everything and didn’t really have anything personally to work on. Being one big team was my goal and that’s what I worked on.”
Giles got her 1,000th career assist during the Vikings’ come-from-behind five-set win at River Hill and finished her time on varsity with 1,242 assists, 83 kills, 94 aces, 333 digs and 34 blocks.
“I think she’s progressed into a really effective setter,” Catanach said. “... I think she ended her high school career as one of the best setters in the area. The fact that she could lead an offense that was pretty small and not the most dynamic by any means in the area to have a successful season I think just proves how successful she is at her position.”
Also named to first-team All-County:
Kayla Browne, Reservoir, junior, middle blocker.
Browne, a three-year starter and a second-team All-County pick last year, was one of the most intimidating players in the county this season. At 6-foot-1, her powerful swings were unstoppable at times, but she was also one of the most well-rounded players in the area and finished with 32 aces, which were key in the Gators’ playoff win against Atholton. Her hitting, however, was her strongest suit, as she had the second-most kills in the county with 204. She also had 18 blocks.
“She is driven to be the best player for her team. She is selfless and always puts her team first,” Reservoir coach Carole Ferrante said. “Kayla brings a chemistry to her team that brings out the best in each and every one of them. She makes each player around her want to be better, work harder.”
Bullock also noted Davis’ competitiveness in helping groom the younger players.
“She works hard to make sure she is getting better and at practice will hold the other players accountable if they aren’t working as hard as they can,” Bullock said.
Davis finished the season with 38 aces, 108 kills and 49 blocks, and 71 aces, 262 kills, 101 blocks and 116 digs for her career. She will play collegiately at Winston Salem State University.
Safi Hampton, Hammond, freshman, outside hitter.
Hampton was arguably the best freshman in what was an extremely talented class in the county this fall. A tall, athletic outside hitter who was part of an accomplished local club team, Hampton made an immediate impact on the varsity level for the Golden Bears and led the squad with 131 kills and 19 blocks — including 16 solo.
“From the minute I met Safi, I knew she would be a game-changing player for Hammond,” Hammond coach Anne Corey said. “Her height, athleticism and ability to crush the ball from the outside position is something the team has been yearning for a few seasons. Safi’s power stunned opponents, coaches and spectators on game days. In addition, Safi's love for competition and confidence was contagious to our team and drastically helped us take a few games from some powerhouse Howard County teams.”
Alyssa Kelly, Glenelg, junior, libero.
A two-year starter and a second-team All-County selection last season, Kelly was the best defender for the Gladiators and one of the best in the county. She consistently kept Glenelg in system with her strong serve receive and passing, which Gladiators coach Jason Monjes said has improved each year.
“[She has] relentless effort on defense and confidence in her game, but she was always about the team first,” he said. “Alyssa has improved every year and would make the big dig during the tough matches.”
Monjes said Kelly’s best performance came during Glenelg’s sweep at Reservoir when she had 18 digs. Overall, she had 27 aces and 252 digs on the year, and as good as she was at libero, Monjes said a move to outside hitter next season is a possibility.
Nelson, a first-team selection for the second straight year, was a six-rotation player who led the Scorpions with a county-best 235 kills, 39 aces, 192 digs and 39 blocks. Most important, according to first-year coach Alison Mariano, was the leadership qualities she displayed in her second season.
“[Nelson] is a leader on the court when it comes to refocusing the team and leads by example. She has a calm demeanor and knows how to shake off a mistake,” she said. “She does a great job taking critique to improve her game and is one of the most level-headed young athletes I have worked with.”
Nelson’s best game came in Oakland Mills’ stunning 3-0 win at Glenelg in the playoffs, when she had 22 kills. She currently has 443 kills in two seasons, and Mariano believes she has a chance to get to 1,000 in her career.
Brenna O’Reilly, Marriotts Ridge, junior, setter.
O’Reilly is a third-year starter and was a second-team All-County setter a year ago. This season, O’Reilly led a balanced offense that didn’t have a particular go-to hitter and did so with immense success. She finished third in the county with 431 assists and had 35 aces and 171 digs.
“Brenna is a natural leader,” Mustangs coach Jamie Bullock said. “She has been doing this since her freshman year. She will tell her teammates what they are doing well but also what they can also work on to get better. As a setter, she is so consistent and makes smart choices at the right times. Being able to mix up the sets and keep the other team’s defense on their toes is important to make sure our hitters are successful.”
O’Reilly got her 1,000th career assist late in Marriotts Ridge’s playoff loss to Mt. Hebron and will head into her senior year with 1,001 assists, 50 kills, 79 aces, six blocks and 465 digs.
Sara Paradisi, Mt. Hebron, senior, outside hitter.
Paradisi was an exchange student from Italy who “brought a whole new perspective to our team,” Vikings’ first-year coach Tina Catanach said. Paradisi overcame a language barrier and adjusting to a new country to accumulate 154 kills and 23 blocks for the county champions, and Catanach said some of her biggest moments came in the biggest matches.
“Sara’s competitiveness, determination and unwillingness to let any barriers stop her made her very successful,” Catanach said. “Her experience playing with much older players in Italy also added a level of maturity and poise to the way she played for us this year. She was incredibly even keeled and consistent. ... Having her with us was an incredible experience for both the players and the coaches. She showed us that volleyball is the same and that we can connect with others through our sport.”
Chanelle Smith, Atholton, senior, middle blocker.
Smith will go down as one of the best players to ever play for the Raiders. She played three varsity seasons after moving to the area from Alabama and was a consistent force in the middle during the team’s best stretch in program history.
“Chanelle’s value to the team is multifaceted,” Atholton coach Larry Schofield said. “Aside from the obvious physical presence, as she’s 6-foot-2, her personality and drive were key to trying to mold a young and inexperienced team.”
Smith had 137 kills and 56 blocks on the year and ended her career with 317 and 106, respectively. Her best game came against River Hill in the playoffs when she had 15 kills, five blocks and three aces in four sets. She will play at Georgetown University.