John Carroll, the defending county champion, got an early lesson in humility this season, then bounced back to flatten the opposition en route to a share of the county title in boys volleyball.
The Patriots, stung by a league-opening loss to Fallston, claimed their share of the championship with C. Milton Wright by defeating the Mustangs, 15-2, 15-5.
Each finished the season 7-1 in the league, followed by Bel Air (6-2), Fallston (6-2), Edgewood (4-4), North Harford (3-5), Harford Tech (2-6), Joppatowne (1-7), Aberdeen (0-8).
When Fallston stunned John Carroll, 13-15, 15-3, 15-7, it marked the first defeat for a Herb Simon-coached team since 1991. Simon took the blame for the loss, although he gave Fallston credit for playing well and earning the decision.
"The game had to be shifted from John Carroll to Fallston, so when I arrived at school, the team had already left," Simon said. "I understand there was a lot of joking around and the players figured all they had to do was show up to win.
"I'm strong on mental preparation and if I had been there, none of that would have happened. They definitely did not have their 'game faces' on that day. And, I believe, with the proper pre-game routine, we would have won.
"That we didn't certainly got our attention. After that, there was no way we were going to lose another match."
Not only did John Carroll not lose another match, but after dropping the second game to Edgewood in a 15-11, 10-15, 15-9 victory in its next outing, it did not allow the opposition more than six points in any game.
Several players echoed their coach's feelings.
"We were surprised we lost to Fallston. It was hard, but our heads were blown," said Dan Gradishar, one of four starting seniors.
"It helped us realize if we didn't play to our potential there were teams that could beat us," added Chris Babiak, rated the top player in the county, with outstanding blocking and hitting skills. "If we play up, nobody can beat us."
There is no question the Patriots' practices are harder than their games.
"Playing best two-of-three, our games last about a half-hour; our practices go for 2 1/2 hours," Babiak said.
Of the seniors, Babiak, Gradishar and Jeff Prior are the veterans, having been starters for at least three years. The fourth, Suhail Mithani, worked hard with Steve Labuda, who helps with the setters, and came along quickly to be outstanding at the position.
"This is only my second competitive season, but I developed a positive attitude and did a lot of work outside of practice," Mithani said. "The others say they got psyched watching volleyball in the Olympics, but I wasn't interested. I saw those 6-foot-5 guys pound the ball, and at 5-8 I'm not the tallest person. Later, I decided to give it a shot and fell in love with the game."
The team's other two starters were younger brothers -- sophomores Michael Babiak and Matt Gradishar -- with two others seeing extended playing time, junior Tim DeCapite and sophomore Ryan McGill.
In recent seasons, Simon has had a mix of seniors and underclassmen as starters, so that each year the team had veterans who learned from previous success. This year, for instance, 13 of the 17 players were holdovers and with only four seniors, next year should be another good one, too.
"I think so," said Simon, "but still, our seniors set a very high standard this year. They are the reason for our success."
C. Milton Wright's success, in which it handled everybody but John Carroll for the second straight year, revolved around a senior-dominated group headed by hitter/blocker Shawn Crouch, and including Keith Erickson, Mat Grow, Bill Harvey and Jeff Schwartz.
In past seasons, the county race was normally a three-cornered affair among Bel Air, C. Milton Wright and John Carroll. Bel Air was not as strong as usual, although it lost only to John Carroll and Wright.
Improvement, however, was shown by young teams at Edgewood, Fallston and North Harford, and coaches are looking for a more competitive league next year.
Aside from John Carroll's and Wright's seniors, other top players in the county included seniors Walid Abouchacra, Steve Piepenbring and Bob Bauer at Bel Air; seniors Scott Vandervander and Ken Treadway at Edgewood; and juniors Max Reinholdt and Kernan Kelly at Fallston.