HOWARD COUNTY, MD — In the biggest moments, the Atholton volleyball team turns to junior outside hitter Lisa Zoch.
Sometimes it’s for a game-changing kill in crunch time, sometimes it’s at the service line for a timely ace, and sometimes it’s for a critical serve-receive. But a lot of the time it’s for a corny joke.
“She’s kind of goofy,” Raiders coach Rob Moy said, “but her goofy humor keeps the team up. When we’re down, she will make a joke or say something really goofy and crack the team up, and that loosens them up and makes them play better. It makes them realize our best player isn’t worried. ... The best part of her game is probably her positive attitude and keeping the team up.”
“You get a vibe from your coaches,” Zoch said. “If they’re very focused or too intense you need the goofiness to counteract the constructive criticism the coaches are giving you.”
Like all great players, Zoch knows when to pick her spots. Pregame and before each set is when she has her elaborate handshake — footwork included — with libero Elise Park and other teammates. The jokes come during timeouts or between plays. But when it’s game time, Zoch stands out above the rest.
She finished the year with a team-best 207 digs and 178 kills — fifth most in the county — to go with 43 aces and six blocks. Zoch was part of an unusual two-person serve receive and did so for the county’s best team, as Atholton went 11-0 in league play to win its first county title in 29 years.
Now, after leading the 2016 state champion Raiders back to the final four and a 16-2 overall record, Zoch is this year’s Howard County Times/Columbia Flier volleyball Player of the Year. She’s the first junior to earn the honor since Centennial’s Liz Brown in 2009 and was named first-team All-Metro by The Baltimore Sun. She is also a finalist for the 2017 Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year.
“I was kind of shocked. I couldn’t believe that it happened,” Zoch said of being named Player of the Year. “There’s a bunch of other great players in the county and it’s tough competition. It means a lot to me and we got to where we were because our team worked so hard. It’s special to get the recognition for it.”
That Zoch is this year’s Player of the Year shouldn’t be a surprise to those who saw her suit up in the black, white and green. She has been a varsity starter for most of her three years at Atholton and was a first-team All-County performer as a sophomore.
As good as she’s been on the court for Atholton, however, it took Zoch some time to learn the mental-side of the game that allowed her to become a leader this fall. In previous years, she would “get in her own head,” Moy said, and the ebbs and flows during a match were like an emotional rollercoaster that would take her out of her game.
“That’s one thing we continue to work on, the mental side of the game. When she’s not hitting her peak performance she tends to get down on herself,” Moy said. “But when she’s on, it’s incredible. It’s a joy to watch her when she’s recognizing what’s on the court and what’s available and she takes that shot.
“That’s just it; she’s one of those kids that without her, we wouldn’t have been anywhere. We wouldn’t have come anywhere close because she not only has the good physical part of the game, she has the mental part.”
The mental side of her game nearly cost Zoch and the Raiders on one of the biggest stages in last year’s state semifinal game. She registered six kills in Atholton’s 3-0 win against Towson, but admitted to being a nervous wreck and was on the bench for parts of the game.
With a championship game match-up with Damascus waiting, Zoch knew she needed to find a way to overcame the bright lights of Ritchie Coliseum if the underdog Raiders were going to complete their historic postseason run.
“That was a disaster. It kind of became real after I played like that, like this is my last chance,” Zoch said. “It was the state finals and it made me realize that if I don’t contribute — I have a coach who says if you’re not giving anything, you’re taking something away. So I put a lot of focus on helping my team and that this was our chance to win and become state champions.”
The five-day break between the semifinal and final did wonders for Zoch. She calmly had 13 kills and a match-high 20 digs against Damascus to help Atholton win its first state championship since 1989, capping a storybook playoff run that few thought was possible.
“We peaked at the right time and looking back on it it’s very true,” Zoch said. “We lost to Mt. Hebron and Howard and Arundel, and those matches would have been nice to win, but they weren’t key to making it through playoffs and making it to the state championship.
“I think as the year went on, we may not have been the best team in the county, but we realized we can do this if we work hard and never give up and rely on our coaches.”
Atholton never shied away from its goal of repeating as state champions entering this season. Zoch was years removed from being the goofy freshman and knew she had to take on a prominent leadership role alongside senior Kelly Simons if the Raiders were going to accomplish the feat.
“I definitely think I’ve matured a lot on and off the court. I’ve definitely accepted more responsibility on the team,” she said. “I remember freshman year I was always the goofball — I still kind of am — and I looked up to the seniors, and now it’s more of people looking up to me. It’s a different feeling and a different way, but it feels good to be on a team that can rely on each other, regardless of age.”
She admitted there was some pressure entering the season with state-title expectations and a bull’s-eye on their back, but you wouldn’t have known it being around Zoch. She was her usual self — goofing off all the while hammering down kills as the team’s go-to outside hitter.
Zoch led Atholton to a perfect county season that included a thrilling five-set victory over Howard. With the score tied at 11 in the fifth set, Zoch told a timely joke before sparking a 3-0 run and putting away an ace in the eventual victory.
The Raiders rolled through the regional playoffs for the second straight year, but their quest for another state title fell short against eventual-champion Northern in four sets.
“It was really devastating,” said Zoch, who had 18 kills in the defeat. “For the next few days it was all I could think about.”
The run isn’t over for Zoch, however. She expects another deep playoff run for the Raiders in 2018, and Moy said with Zoch anything is possible.
“She had a great year and next year I expect her to be even better,” he said.
Also named to the first team:
Anna Jezerski, Howard, senior, outside hitter.
A Player of the Year candidate, Jezerski was arguably the most improved player in the county this fall. She averaged 3.4 kills and 2.4 digs per set while being a six-rotation player who was critical in serve receive and defense. She also had a 96.5 percent serving percentage.
“Many power hitters are thought to be weak on defense and serve receive, but not Anna,” Howard coach Grant Scott said. “In the beginning of the season I thought I might need to find a back-row specialist to play for her but she proved me wrong.”
Jezerski finished with a county-best 242 kills and was second on the team with 32 aces and 21 blocks.
“Not only is Anna an outstanding volleyball player, but she is a natural leader, and an amazing person as well,” Scott said.
Christina Kundrat, Howard, senior, middle blocker.
A first-team All-County selection for the second straight year, Kundrat was “everything a coach wants to see in a middle blocker,” Lions coach Grant Scott said. She finished the season with a county-best 49 blocks and has been consistent on offense as well, tallying more than 100 kills in each of the past three years. She also had 31 aces and had a serve percentage of 92.4.
“She has speed, power, and most importantly, a high volleyball IQ,” Scott said. “Christina can predict where the set is going before the ball leaves the setter’s hand. This allows her to use her speed to close blocks and take away angles from hitters.”
Kundrat was a four-year varsity player that helped Howard win 42 of its 48 county matches in that span.
McAuley did it all this season for the Gladiators, as she led the team in kills (217), blocks (25.5) and aces (58), a rare feat for a middle blocker. She was key to a huge turnaround this fall for Glenelg, going 9-2 in county and 14-3 overall a year after going 4-7 and 7-8, respectively.
“Colleen improved each year, served on varsity for three years and was a team captain during her senior year,” Gladiators coach Jason Monjes said.
McAuley was selected to the all-tournament team at the Linganore tournament and was crucial for Glenelg on offense and defense. She was a 2017 AVCA High School All-American nominee, on the 2017 All-American watch list, and a 2017 AVCA Phenom College Prep Program invitee.
Elise Park, Atholton, junior, libero.
Park has been the Raiders’ most steady defender the last few seasons and was a starter on their state championship team in 2016. She served at 92 percent with 18 aces and had 203 digs to help Atholton finish undefeated in county play and win its first county title since 1988.
“Elise lent confidence to her teammates through her consistent defensive efforts,” Raiders coach Rob Moy said. “We also depended on her court leadership, as she was half of our unusual two-person serve receive that allowed the rest of the team to focus on their own specific duties.”
On the court, Park, who was also named to first-team All-Metro by The Baltimore Sun, provided energy in the form of laughs.
“In huddles, Elise provided humor and energy that kept our team loose when tension set into our game,” Moy said.
A two-time first-team All-County selection after being named to the second-team as a sophomore, Przybyla was a technician in practice and during games. The four-year varsity player had 411 assists, 32 aces and 142 digs to lead the Eagles to an 8-3 county record.
“Emily is one of the better setters I have coached,” Centennial coach Michael Bossom said. “She’s a leader. She provided on-court leadership and worked to keep everyone level and focused.”
In addition to her ability to calmly spread the ball all over the court, Przybyla worked constantly behind the scenes with the younger setters on the team.
“She is a great setter who was there as the program began the process of positive change,” Bossom said.
Sterenberg was the Eagles’ go-to player all season long and almost always delivered. She finished the season with 220 kills — second most in the county — a team-high 33 aces, 10 blocks and 217 digs as one of the best all-around players in the league.
“She’s a competitor, a leader, an athlete and she continues to work hard at every practice to get better and improve,” Centennial coach Michael Bossom said. “She competes hard every day and works hard in the weight room too.”
Sterenberg had 17 kills in a four-set loss to Atholton in the regular season, 16 in a win against River Hill and 11 against Howard — three of the best teams in the league.
Sweet follows in the footsteps of her older sister Sarah as a first-team All-County selection. She has been a key defender for the Lions in each of her first three varsity seasons and has led the team in digs and serve receive the last two.
“Grace’s strength is reading the hitter,” Howard coach Grant Scott said. “She puts herself in the correct defensive position by reading the hitter, adjusting to the offensive scheme, and finding the ball. These are traits that are difficult to teach but critical to being an outstanding defensive player.”
Sweet had 247 digs and 32 aces this season and needs only 108 digs next fall to break the school record for digs in a career.
Claudia Sweitzer, Wilde Lake, junior, setter.
A three-year varsity player, Sweitzer switched to setter this season after two years as a defensive specialist and excelled as the team’s only setter. She finished the season with 47 aces, 189 digs and 480 assists, and also had 10 blocks despite standing 5-foot-2.
“Claudia understands the game of volleyball very well,” Wildecats coach Nick Sharp said. “Her stats show she’s effective playing both offense and defense. Claudia embodies the spirit of a competitor. She puts the maximum of effort into every play and keeps the team focused and aggressive.”
Sweitzer was a team captain for a Wilde Lake team that finished 6-5 in county and 12-6 overall.