Look at many of the Howard County volleyball teams this year and a trend appears.
It’s not the extreme parity or that teams in three different classifications have a realistic chance to make a run at a state championship. Take a closer look and you’ll notice that freshmen are taking over the league.
It’s a development that has slowly become more common in Howard County as girls volleyball becomes more popular. According to the National Federation of High Schools, girls volleyball has the second-most participants among all girls sports and also had the biggest increase in participation since last year.
That growth has trickled down to the younger age groups, too, and has resulted in an explosion of local club teams that has increased the level of competition from the top down.
“If you look back to 2005 when I first moved here, you had one of two teams at each level at Maryland Juniors and then Columbia Volleyball Club had a couple teams at each level, and that was it, and you had to be really good to make those teams,” Reservoir coach Carole Ferrante said. “Now you have so many more kids that are out there playing club than they were before.”
Reservoir starts three freshmen this fall — libero Gabby Allen, right-side hitter Kelsey Holmes and outside hitter Mayah Tucker. Freshman outside hitter Rhisen Davis (64 kills) and defensive specialist Reyna Peterman (29 aces) have been key starters for 13-win Marriotts Ridge. Centennial outside hitter Claire Wu and setter Brianna Bossom have earned starting spots; Howard outside hitter Corinne Chau leads the team in aces (34) and is second in kills (135); and Hammond outside hitter Safi Hampton is the team leader in kills (131) and blocks (16).
All entered high school with years of club experience.
“I think over the past few years there’s been a much bigger interest in the game,” Howard coach Allison Ose said. “I’m starting to notice we are getting more players with that club experience before they come into high school. It’s great to see there are kids joining programs earlier and getting a lot of skills developed, and they are coming into school ready to play ball and keep growing and contributing.”
Marriotts Ridge coach Jamie Bullock started as a freshman and helped lead Glenelg to the state championship in 1995. She said the influx of ninth graders on varsity is because “volleyball has really caught on,” and added that “if they weren’t playing club, I think we’d be very different off right now.”
“These girls are playing at high levels of volleyball at such a young age,” she said. “They’re starting at 10, 11, 12 years old, and so by the time they’re freshmen ... they’re just better skilled, and it’s just fun to watch.”
Last year, Oakland Mills outside hitter Zhenzhu Nelson finished third in the county with 208 kills as a freshman and earned first-team All-County honors. Long Reach’s Mia Rubio also started, and two years ago Atholton’s Ryan Rorls played opposite Player of the Year Lisa Zoch as a ninth grader. The youth movement isn’t totally confined to the class of 2023, but the group has opened eyes around the league.
Mike Bossom, the longtime Centennial coach, had Wu, Brianna Bossom, Peterman and Hampton on the same club team two years ago. He said there has been a trend of good coaches coaching the younger age groups, and their development has been evident.
“You get a bunch of them who all know each other and want to play together, and they kind of stick together for a couple years and they learn how to play at a pretty high level, and then they all go to different high schools,” Bossom said.
Ferrante raved about her young trio, calling them easy to coach because of how anxious they are to learn.
“They’re young, they’re excited and they’re like sponges,” she said. “They just want to learn everything, and they want to do more, and they want to do better, and they want to prove that as freshmen that they can compete with everyone else.”
Allen (26 aces, 33 assists, 189 digs) and Tucker (32 aces, 146 kills, 20 blocks, 56 digs) have also started every game, and Holmes (37 kills, 29 blocks, eight assists, 11 digs) was called up from JV in early October. Ferrante lauded Allen’s volleyball IQ and the enthusiasm she brings to the game and called Tucker “a beast” because of her all-around ability and topspin serve.
“It’s not just that she is powerful,” Ferrante said of Tucker, “she is mentally tougher than probably any player I have coached.”
Marriotts Ridge coach Jamie Bullock said that “it takes a special freshman” to want to attack every ball the way Davis, whose older sister Rheign is a senior, does, but added “it is rare.”
“Rhisen is just the type of player that, even though she’s just a freshman, she wants every ball, and she gets so frustrated with herself when things aren’t perfect,” Bullock said. “It’s just that player that you want to have. She wants to go out and get every big kill she can get. ... I love her attitude and I think it helps that her sister is there because she’s a little more comfortable.”
Peterman, Bullock said, has one of the toughest tasks as a rotational defensive specialist, but noted Peterman has “done an excellent job this season.”
Golden Bears coach Anne Corey said Hampton has only played volleyball for a few years, but she knew Hampton was going to special the first time she saw her play during the summer.
“She’s going to go places,” Corey said.
Bullock called Hampton “a rare breed” and “tremendous.” Ferrante believes the sky is the limit for her potential.
“If she is not player of the year at some point I would be surprised, and I mean All-Met Player of the Year,” Ferrante said. “She’s got that kind of potential, as long as she does all the things that she needs to do.”
Chau, better known as “Coco,” was homeschooled until this year. Ose said she wanted to come to Howard to play volleyball, and her impact has been immediate for a Lions team that is 11-3 entering the playoffs.
“She’s really rounded us out. A piece we really needed was another outside that could play all six positions and her defense has really helped our team with passing and serve receive,” Ose said. “It’s great because she’s so smart with the ball that she’s able to find places to get kills, and that’s really been an asset to our team.”
The youth movement, Ferrante said, likely won’t slow down as the sport continues to grow. She said there are numerous eighth graders she expects to come in next year and push for starting spots, and it’s not just at Reservoir.
“It’s not just the same schools rising,” Ferrante said. “There is a rise of level across the county, like everyone is getting these players and everyone’s getting more kids playing club and everyone is getting pushed. Everyone is competitive.”