Atholton senior Lisa Zoch talks about her team's expectations this fall and more. (Tim Schwartz / BSMG video)
There’s Atholton, and then there is everyone else.
That’s the overall sentiment from the Howard County volleyball coaches entering the 2018 season, and it’s the same one that was echoed last year. The Raiders delivered on those expectations by going undefeated against county competition and winning the 3A East regional championship for the second straight year.
But don’t crown them as county champions just yet. There are a number of teams, most notably Glenelg and Howard, expecting to pose a threat to Atholton, and even more on the rise and ready to jump into the mix.
“I think there is going to be a lot of teams fighting in that next tier,” said Howard coach Grant Scott, “but I do think Atholton is the class of the county this year.”
The Raiders lost just three players from last year’s team that went 16-2 and return 2017 Player of the Year Lisa Zoch at outside hitter and first-team All-County libero Elise Park, among nine players overall returning.
There is one major change for Atholton, however, and it’s among its coaching ranks. Rob Moy, who coached the Raiders since 2013, has stepped down to coach the JV team, while former JV coach Larry Schofield has taken over the varsity squad.
Schofield isn’t new to Howard County or coaching varsity at the highest level in high schools. He was the head coach at Centennial for seven years from 2007 to 2013 and won five county titles, the 2008 state championship and made the state finals in 2010 and 2012. He understands the amount of talent on this year’s senior-laden team and the expectations are to win their second state championship in three years.
“It’s still just a continuation of the same kind of philosophy. It’s going in the right direction right now,” Schofield said. “Atholton volleyball for years was one of the bottom programs and now we’ve moved up to the top programs, and the only difference between Rob and I is I am just a little more aggressive, that’s all. That’s just my general nature.”
While the Raiders last year won their first county title since 1988, they weren’t quite as dominant as they hoped to be and fell short of defending their state title. This season, however, Schofield expects his team to rise to the next level. He said the team’s goals are to “hit a home run” and win the Westminster tournament, as well as the county, region and state championships.
“We’ve got two first-team All-County players coming back, including the county player of the year, so, yeah, the expectations are pretty high,” he said. “They set the expectations fairly high. ... We know where we want to be on the 20th of November.”
Schofield said one of the key differences between this year’s and last year’s teams is the senior leadership. He said it’s a strength entering the campaign, which has been a constant in each of his teams that reached the state finals.
Perhaps most important is that Atholton boasts having the best player in the county. Schofield said he wants Zoch, who had 207 digs and 178 kills last fall, to be a “terminator.”
“I was telling her, ‘you won last year and had great stats, but this year I want you to make it an exclamation point,” he said. “... Every team needs a terminator, and I told her ‘I need you right now. When you get up there to swing, I want you to think, ‘terminate.’’”
Glenelg and Howard were the county’s top contenders teams before Atholton’s rise, and both programs expect to finish among the top three teams in the standings once again.
The Gladiators, who went 9-2 in county and 14-3 overall while falling one set short of winning the 2A South regional championship, return just two starters — Maddie Southern and Lydia Stricker — but will fill in the holes with several newcomers. Sophomore libero Alyssa Kelly is expected to make an immediate impact as a transfer from Good Counsel, and so is Maddie Myers, who was homeschooled and is now a junior being recruited by several Division I schools.
Coach Jason Monjes said his team is facing adversity in the preseason because of a fairly new lineup but should have a very formidable team with passing and ball control being its strengths.
“A lot of the girls that are forming the team this year, including the girls who transferred in, they’re aware of what we’ve done in the past and they want to experience making that deep run,” Monjes said. “... For us, it’s going to be about putting the ball down. We’re going to be one of, if not the best defensive teams in the county. I think we’re going to be pretty solid in the back row, but it’s going to be about the front row.”
The Lions, meanwhile, have lost just seven county matches and finished either first or second in the league over the last five years. Scott said this year’s team is fairly inexperienced but has the talent to be in the mix for the county title.
Scott added thjat his year’s team reminds him of his 2014 squad, which had numerous new players after the graduation of 2013 Howard County Times Player of the Year Sydney Biniak, among most of his starters. But the Lions finished that season 11-2 in county and 12-3 overall to finish second in the league.
“Do I believe in the potential of this team? Absolutely. Can they develop into a really cohesive unit? Absolutely. It’s just a matter of making that happen,” he said.
Among Howard’s key returners are 2017 first-team All-County libero Grace Sweet, a four-year varsity player entering her third season as a starter, senior setter Vendela Lundgren and senior outside hitter Ava Fredrickson. Three newcomers — Emma Marthins, Jordan Redmiles and Sanaya Srivastava — are 5-foot-9 or taller.
Centennial returns senior Jackie Sterenberg, one of the best outside hitters in the league. She had the second-most kills in the county last fall and will be counted on even more after the loss of All-County setter Emily Przybyla to graduation.
“How we come together and work as a team is an important part of the team’s development,” Eagles coach Michael Bossom said. “The ability to continue to focus, learn and progress throughout the season will be a big part of what we define as success.”
Wilde Lake, River Hill, Marriotts Ridge and Oakland Mills also have higher expectations entering the 2018 campaign.
The Wildecats return four starters, including senior setter Claudia Sweitzer. The All-County setter is coming off a knee injury she suffered in June, but coach Nick Sharp is optimistic about her health and the team overall.
Hawks coach Lynn Paynter said she expects improvement this season after going 7-4 in county and 10-5 overall last year. Senior Devin Hill, who had 85 kills in 2017, is among their key returners.
“We’re going to be a stronger team than we have been the last couple of years,” Paynter said. “I am truly excited, and the kids are excited about it. They’re ready to go.”
The Mustangs have a new coach in Jamie Bullock, who was an assistant last year and was previously the varsity coach at Reservoir. They return experienced senior Claire Meininger at outside hitter and one of the best young players in the league, sophomore setter Brenna O’Reilly, who was a second-team All-County selection as a freshman last fall. Bullock also expects improvement from middle blocker Reign Davis, a junior.
The Scorpions are entering their second year under coach Kristin Anderson-Little and return four starters to pair with talented freshman outside hitter Zhenzhu Nelson, who is expected to make an immediate impact.
“She will be a key play-maker for us,” Anderson-Little said. “This group of Scorpions is the most persistent and dedicated bunch I have seen.”
Long Reach and Reservoir also have new coaches. Erik Groch takes over the helm for Liz Dolan, and the Lightning have one of the tallest teams in the league and have strength in the middle with Angelina Casserly and Hailey Ramberg returning for their third varsity seasons. Finding suitable defenders, however, will be key for their success.
Amy Harvey, a 2013 graduate, will coach the Gators after spending last fall as an assistant on the freshman team. Reservoir returns All-County outside hitter Sydney Allen, among several other upperclassmen, but Harvey says this will likely be a rebuilding year.
Hammond returns six starters, including senior setter Hannah Gorel, and the Golden Bears should improve on their two-win season a year ago.
Here’s a snapshot of what to expect from the 14 county programs:
Top players: Seniors Lisa Zoch (OH) and Elise Park (DS/L); juniors Chanelle Smith (MB) and Jessica Humphries (MB/RS); sophomores Ryan Rorls (OH) and Ingrid Chang (DS/L).
2017 record: 8-3, 10-6
Coach: Michael Bossom
Returning starters: 5
Top players: Seniors Jackie Sterenberg (OH), Camila Cavero (L), Nicole Attram (MB) and Emily Dewhurst (RS); juniors Sarah Allen (OH) and Kayla Kellner (RS); freshmen Alisha Service (S) and Holli Kraisser (S).
2017 record: 9-2, 14-3
Coach: Jason Monjes
Returning starters: 2
Top players: Seniors Maddie Southern (S/RS) and Olivia Haley (DS/S); juniors Lydia Stricker (DS/OH), Katie Laport (MB), Alyssa Kelly (L), Sarah Santiago (OH) and Maddie Myers (DS/OH); sophomore Gracen Alsheimer (MB).