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Balancing club and coronavirus complications, Howard County volleyball embarks on ‘very different season’

With the graduation of nine seniors and all but two starters from its 2019 county championship squad, Mt. Hebron volleyball knew it would face some adversity during its quest to remain in the county’s upper tier this season.

Exactly how much adversity, however, didn’t become apparent until shortly after in-person practices began in February.

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Before tryouts were even complete, contact tracing following a positive coronavirus test caused the team to shut down all in-person activities for two weeks. That meant tryouts could not resume until March 4, just one day before the team’s first scheduled match against Marriotts Ridge.

That match, along with the team’s next contest against Glenelg on March 8, had to be postponed until later in the season, and Vikings’ coach Christina Catanach in turn had to help her players stay focused on the bigger picture.

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“As a coach, my philosophy is to approach every season as its own. Sure, we can take the confidence and experience from what we did last year and carry that with us, but it’s a different season. And as we are already finding out, it’s a different season when it comes to handling off-the-court issues as well,” said Catanach, who is in her second season leading the program. “We will be defined by how we handle this. It’s frustrating, but we knew that something like this might happen when we returned. Playing high school sports during a pandemic is unprecedented, and I feel like we are almost trying to fly the plane as we are building it.”

Catanach said the two returning senior starters — Morgan Amos and Brenna Siperko — will be leaned on to bring the younger players along quickly. Amos is coming off a second-team All-County junior season in which she finished third in the county with 194 kills, while Siperko chipped in with 92 kills of her own to go along with 46 blocks.

Mt. Hebron's Brenna Spierko puts a shot past the outstretched arms of Mt. Hebron's Shreeni Chikyala during River Hill's home match against Mt. Hebron Wednesday evening in Clarksville.
Mt. Hebron's Brenna Spierko puts a shot past the outstretched arms of Mt. Hebron's Shreeni Chikyala during River Hill's home match against Mt. Hebron Wednesday evening in Clarksville. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Marriotts Ridge tied Mt. Hebron for the county’s best record in 2019, with the team’s only two losses coming head-to-head against the Vikings — once in the regular season and once in the playoffs. The Mustangs return nine players and five starters from that team. Coach Jamie Bullock said the seniors, including three-time All-County setter Brenna O’Reilly, are in position to leave a great legacy on the program.

“The dedication and work ethic they bring starts us off at a high level this season,” Bullock said.

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The list of challengers to the teams at the top is a lengthy one, though.

Howard finished a game out of first place in 2019 with a young team and now brings back five starters from that group. There’s senior leadership, along with a talented crop of underclassmen — headlined by All-County sophomore Corinne Chau.

Reservoir brings back more All-County talent than any other team. Senior Kayla Browne, sophomore Gabby Allen and sophomore Mayah Tucker were recognized among the county’s best in 2019 after helping the Gators to the program’s first region championship since 2007. Browne, in particular, was a Player of the Year finalist from her middle blocker position following a junior season in which she was second in the county with 204 kills to go along with 32 aces and 18 blocks.

Glenelg also brings back multiple All-County performers — Gracen Alsheimer and Alyssa Kelly — from its team that went 8-3 in county play and won double-digit games overall the last time they were on the court together.

In general, the county has seen plenty of parity in the last couple seasons with a much deeper middle tier. Look no further than Oakland Mills, which won just two county games during the regular season in 2019, knocking off fourth-place Glenelg in the region playoffs. County-champion Mt. Hebron’s lone league loss came against fifth-place Atholton.

Coexisting with club

For all the top-tier talent back on the court this spring, there are plenty of notable names who have chosen to take the season off for one reason or another. At the top of the list are All-County honorees Safi Hampton (Hammond sophomore), Zhenzhu Nelson (Oakland Mills junior) and Ryan Rorls (Atholton senior).

But, overall, over half the county schools have noted that they had at least one potential starter opt out.

In most of the cases, players are choosing to focus solely on club volleyball instead of trying to bounce back and forth between their club and high school team obligations.

“The club schedule intentionally was set up where it starts over the winter and therefore doesn’t typically interfere with high school and college, but now with the change of seasons we are the ones infringing on them,” Atholton coach Larry Schofield said. “It not only puts the kids in a tough spot, but also a lot of the coaches who coach both high school and club. There’s a lot of overlapping of practices and games.”

And when there isn’t overlap, the simple fact that the two leagues run up against one another creates potential problems. Specifically, having high school volleyball games now scheduled for Mondays and Wednesdays, instead of the typical Tuesdays and Thursdays, means there’s less recovery and preparation time.

“With many of the girls playing in club tournaments on the weekend and not allowing the teams the additional day to prepare together could adversely affect the players,” Reservoir coach Carole Ferrante said.

Schofield adds that burn out is a real concern.

“There’s only so much wear and tear that these player’s bodies can take. The last thing we want are injuries because we are asking them to do too much,” he said. “I know that our practices have only been going an hour and a half to try and mitigate some of that.”

Centennial coach Mike Bossom, who is coaching club with Baltimore Elite this winter and spring, said he’s had to be more lenient than usual with players leaving practices early or missing them all together for other commitments.

“I’m doing my best to stay as consistent as possible, but there’s no getting around the fact that this is just a very different season,” he said. “The teams that end up doing the best will be the one that adapts the best to the ever-changing climate. And that applies to coaches too.”

There are some changes to the games and schedule that might mitigate some of the concerns and conflicts.

For starters, teams have been granted the opportunity to switch their game times for varsity and JV. That means varsity matches can start as early as 5 p.m. instead of the originally scheduled 6:30 p.m. time slot — allowing for players and coaches to potentially finish a match and then still attend club practice later in the evening.

The length of the games have also been adjusted, with teams squaring off in best of three matches instead of the traditional best of five.

Other coronavirus-related regulations in place for this season are that all players will wear masks at all times, including while competing on the court. Teams will not shake hands at the beginning or end of matches, and there will be no switching of benches.

Championship goals

There may be no MPSSAA-affiliated postseason tournament this spring, but if things go according to plan there will be a culminating county event that will help determine a county champion.

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After the first eight games of the season, the teams will be seeded according to the standings and the top eight squads will have the opportunity to play for a title. To start things out, the 12 county teams have been divided into two divisions.

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Division A: Atholton, Hammond, Long Reach, Reservoir, River Hill, Wilde Lake

Division B: Centennial, Glenelg, Howard, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron, Oakland Mills

The first five games of the season will be matchups against each of the opponents within a team’s division, and the next three will be crossover contests based on the standings to that point. For example, the top team in Division A will play the second-, fourth- and sixth-best teams in Division B, while the second-best team in Division A will play the first-, third- and fifth-best team in Division B. The odd-numbered teams in the division standings will play the even-numbered teams in the other division, and vice versa.

After the eighth game, currently scheduled for March 30, the county teams will then be seeded 1-12 based on record. The top eight teams will be put in a bracket for a tournament to determine the county champion, while the bottom four will placed into a three-game round-robin format to finish out the season.

All teams are scheduled for 11 games, regardless of whether they lose early on in the culminating tournament.

“If it plays out the way they say, I’m a big fan because it allows everyone to keep going until the end and continue to keep trying to get one day better,” Bossom said. “If you think about it, it’s a pretty unique situation. Usually you only have four teams in the entire state that finish their season with a win. This year, there will be six county teams that have the opportunity to go out with a victory.”

Here’s a closer look at each of the team’s ahead of the first play date of the season on March 5:

Atholton's Kelsey Miller reacts after a won point against Reservoir.
Atholton's Kelsey Miller reacts after a won point against Reservoir. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Atholton

2019 record: 7-4, 10-6

Coach: Larry Schofield, 11th season overall

Top players: Seniors Ingrid Chang (L) and Kelsey Miller (S); juniors Kelly He (S) and Kyndall Mason (OH).

First serve: Setting and defense will be the strengths for a Raiders’ team that has five returning players. Miller led the team in assists last year with 223 and started at setter along with He, while Chang was the team leader in digs (125). Mason will take on a larger role at outside hitter with Ryan Rorls, a second-team All-County selection as a junior, opting out of the season. Freshman Allison Semel is among the newcomers expected to contribute right away, stepping in as a middle hitter. Atholton has finished with double-digit victories five straight seasons.

Centennial

2019 record: 4-7, 7-9

Coach: Michael Bossom, 19th season overall

Top players: Seniors Grace Chan (RS) and Emily Hollwedel (MH); juniors Holli Kraisser (OH/DS) and Kendall Kreidel (MH); sophomores Brianna Bossom (S), Abi Griffin (OH) and Caleigh Kim (L); freshman Mailihn Godschall (OH).

First serve: The Eagles feature a very young starting rotation, with an equal number of freshmen and sophomores (four) as juniors and seniors. Of that group, three are returning starters and an additional three have seen significant playing time. Despite the team’s youth, Bossom says the expectations don’t change for how he expects the team to execute and compete on a nightly basis. “We may not be there physically with the top teams yet, but we have some talent,” he said. Brianna Bossom was second on the team in assists (129) in 2019 and will take on an even larger role without last year’s starting setter Alisha Service (225 assists).

Glenelg's Alyssa Kelly was a first-team All-County selection in 2019.
Glenelg's Alyssa Kelly was a first-team All-County selection in 2019. (Doug Kapustin / For Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Glenelg

2019 record: 8-3, 10-6

Coach: Jason Monjes, eighth season

Top players: Seniors Gracen Alsheimer (MB), Alyssa Kelly (L) and Libby Laport (OH); sophomore Lauren LaPointe (MH); freshman Lindsay Kelley (S).

First serve: Alsheimer and Alyssa Kelly are the lone returning starters for the Gladiators, but they are a great two to have considering their wealth of experience and All-County pedigree. Kelly is a two-time All-County selection, including first team honors after racking up 252 digs in 2019, while Alsheimer made second team as a junior despite missing time due to injury. Not surprisingly, Monjes says defense will be the team’s strength with those two anchoring that unit. The coach adds that the rest of the team is very young, but filled with “upcoming potential.”

Hammond

2019 record: 3-8, 6-9

Coach: Anne Corey, eighth season

Top players: Senior Abbie Weirich (L); juniors Jenna Kreh (S) and Erin Peters (OPH).

First serve: Corey says the team’s agenda this season is to “play smarter, not harder,” and that meshing as a team is top priority. There are three returning starters, even with sophomore Safi Hampton opting out after making first team All-County as a freshman, and plenty of rising players from JV that have been playing on a club team in the offseason. Weirich was the team leader in digs (168) and aces (31) as a junior. Kreh was among the team leaders with 169 assists in 2019. The three county wins last season exceeded the Golden Bears’ total in the previous three years combined.

Howard's Kathy Taveras (L) and Corinne Chau return a Marriotts Ridge serve during their match Monday evening in Marriottsville.
Howard's Kathy Taveras (L) and Corinne Chau return a Marriotts Ridge serve during their match Monday evening in Marriottsville. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Howard

2019 record: 9-2, 12-4

Coach: Allison Ose, second season

Top players: Seniors Gigi Fredrickson (MB), Kylie O’Connor (OH/DS), Jordan Redmiles (S) and Kathy Taveras (L); junior Tyller Williams (MB/RS); sophomores Corinne Chau (OH) and Kelenna Onukwugha (OH).

First serve: The Lions have a unique blend of experience and young talent, featuring five returning starters and plenty of depth in outside and right side hitters and also a collection of strong passers. Howard finished just a game out of first place in 2019 and has finished top three in the county standings six of the last seven years. Last season, Taveras led the county in digs with 292, Redmiles led the county in assists with 564 and Chau burst onto the scene by making second team All-County as a freshman. Onukwugha is an intriguing addition as a transfer into the program from Mount de Sales.

Long Reach

2019 record: 0-11, 1-14

Coach: Erik Groch, third season

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Top players: Seniors Indyia Haskett (OPH) and Shakira Knight (MB); juniors Isabella Mora (OH), Mia Rubio (L) and Kailey Young (OH); freshman Hayley Norton (S).

First serve: There may only be three starters back for the Lightning, but Groch says many of the new players have come in ready to go thanks to playing club. There’s plenty of talent to make significant improvements after going winless in league play the last two years, including some strong hitters to go with a front row defensively that has height and athleticism. Rubio, meanwhile, ranked among the county leaders in digs (114) as a sophomore. Norton may be just a freshman, but she is expected to make huge contributions running the team’s offense.

Marriotts Ridge's Brenna O'Reilly return a Howard shot during their match Monday evening in Marriottsville.
Marriotts Ridge's Brenna O'Reilly return a Howard shot during their match Monday evening in Marriottsville. (Doug Kapustin/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Marriotts Ridge

2019 record: 10-1, 13-2

Coach: Jamie Bullock, seventh season overall

Top players: Seniors Julia Mamo (L/OH) and Brenna O’Reilly (S); junior Olivia Kuznetsova (MH); sophomore Rhisen Davis (RS).

First serve: Even with the loss to Mt. Hebron in the second round of the playoffs, the Mustangs still enjoyed one of the best seasons in program history in 2019. In fact, it’s the only time Marriotts Ridge has ever won double-digit county games. As the team looks to build on that success, O’Reilly and Mamo are great senior leaders to have. O’Reilly has been an All-County selection each of her first three varsity seasons — finishing third in the county in assists as a junior with 431 to give her over 1,000 assists in her career. Mamo, meanwhile, was sixth in the county in kills as a junior with 154.

Mt. Hebron

2019 record: 10-1, 13-3

Coach: Christina Catanach, second season

Top players: Seniors Morgan Amos (OH) and Brenna Siperko (MF).

First serve: The Vikings’ county championship in 2019 was the second in the last four years for the program and a further testament to the team’s consistency over the past decade with nine winning seasons in the last 10 years. Due to the delay in tryouts because of challenges surrounding the coronavirus, Catanach said she wouldn’t even be able to finalize her roster until March 5. Mt. Hebron will not field a freshman or junior varsity team, and does have several freshman on the varsity that should contribute right away. As they develop, the leadership from Amos and Siperko will be critical to getting everyone on the same page in a short period of time.

Oakland Mills

2019 record: 2-9, 4-12

Coach: Kristin Anderson-Little, fourth season overall

Top players: Senior Iyanna McDuffie (S); junior Paige McPhillips (MH); freshman Kathryn Rogan (L/OH).

First serve: After a year off, Anderson-Little returns as head coach for a program that made huge strides during the 2019 postseason with straight set wins over Francis Scott Key and Glenelg to reach the 2A West Region I final. This year’s group will be looking to build on that, albeit without the services of first team All-County outside hitter Zhenzhu Nelson, who has opted out of the season after leading the county in kills (235) as a sophomore. McDuffie is back as one of the county’s top setters, registering 190 assists as a junior.

Returning all-county performer Reservoir player, Kayla Browne spikes the ball during scrimmage. Volleyball practice at Reservoir High School, Monday March 1, 2021.
Returning all-county performer Reservoir player, Kayla Browne spikes the ball during scrimmage. Volleyball practice at Reservoir High School, Monday March 1, 2021. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

Reservoir

2019 record: 6-5, 11-6

Coach: Carole Ferrante, ninth season overall

Top players: Seniors Kayla Browne (MB), Navleen Kaur (OH/DS), Shelby Reed (MB) and Breyonna Young (DS); junior Jessica Rothermel (S); sophomores Gabby Allen (L), Kelsey Holmes (OPH/S) and Mayah Tucker (OH).

First serve: The Gators were one of the county’s youngest teams in 2019, which means that a large portion of the team is back and eager to build on the team’s 2019 region title. Browne, Allen and Tucker are all returning All-County players, with plenty of depth behind them. In fact, Ferrante said she didn’t cut anyone interested in playing this year. The coach said she has been impressed with how well the team is playing together already. “We have not been on a court together in a year and a half and the chemistry was instant,” Ferrante said.

River Hill

2019 record: 6-5, 9-7

Coach: Lynn Paynter, 11th season

Top players: Juniors Shreeni Chikyala (MH), Shannon Hill (OH) and Erin Li (L/DS).

First serve: The Hawks were playing some of their best volleyball at the end of the 2019 campaign, winning three straight to close the regular season and another to open the playoffs. The returning group is on the younger side but has some match experience to fall back on. Chikyala (131 kills, 47 blocks) and Hill (124 kills, 15 blocks) were each among the River Hill leaders in multiple statistical categories as sophomores.

Wilde Lake

2019 record: 1-10, 6-11

Coach: Kelly Vieira, second season

Top players: Seniors Alisa Drake (MH), Valeria Malorodova (L), Morgan Sampson (OH) and Amaiya Sancho (DS).

First serve: The Wildecats are light on experience as they look to improve on the program’s one-win county season in 2019. Malorodova is the lone returning starter, but is a great leader to have considering she has been on varsity for the past three years at her libero position. The team opens up the season against Long Reach, which it swept for its lone county victory in the regular season last year.

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