The world of Carroll County volleyball has been slowly changing in recent years.
Although other teams had talent, North Carroll was clearly the dominant squad in the late 1980s. But this decade has brought the five high schools closer together, and this year they could be more equal than ever.
Four of the five teams finished over .500 last year, and a combined record of 53-30 showed the strength of the teams.
"I think we've all gotten a lot closer," said South Carroll coach Debbie Eaton. "All of the teams in the county are strong."
Westminster (13-3), Francis Scott Key (14-5), North Carroll (12-4) and South Carroll (10-8) all scored lots of success last year. North Carroll and Westminster shared the Central Maryland Conference title, and the Owls captured the county crown.
Francis Scott Key won its second straight region title and advanced to the state semifinals. It was the third straight year the Eagles at least made it to the region finals.
But South Carroll, despite just getting over .500, proved one of the year's biggest surprises when it won the region title and made it to the Class 3A state final.
Nobody could put a finger on exactly why all of the teams have improved and there's so much equity. Most agree that life goes in cycles in high school sports, but to have everyone strong at one time -- especially in such a small county -- is unusual.
But coaches offered several theories as to the county's success.
Francis Scott Key's Leo Totten said coaches who care make an impact.
"In the county, if you look around, [you'll see] that all of the head coaches really care about their program," said Totten. "I just think this group of volleyball coaches go the extra mile."
Westminster coach Dana Falls said that good coaching, especially at the junior varsity level, is also helping. He said "there's some good fundamental coaching going on" so that varsity coaches can work on more complicated things.
Eaton said the growing popularity of the sport itself is not hurting matters. People can see more of it on television now, and more people like volleyball and know what it's about.
Eaton said she sees volleyball becoming more popular in the county. Liberty coach Helen Derwin agreed, saying she had to cut 38players, despite coming off a 4-10season.
Several coaches said the intense county and CMC and Monocacy Valley Athletic League rivalries are making competition tougher -- and thereby making teams play better more often.
"In general, when we play the county teams, we know we're going to have a tough match," said Eaton. "We know we could [be beaten] by any county school, and we know we're capable of beating any county school."
Eaton's Cavaliers proved last season that they could beat almost anybody. In the region playoffs, they defeated Linganore in five games and handled host Whitman in five games two nights later.
The Cavaliers then topped C.M. Wright in the state semifinal before losing to perennial power Centennial in the championship. But that late-season run delighted Eaton.
"It kind of put us on the map, so to speak," said Eaton.
L The other county teams also could get on that map this year.
Liberty was the lone team that didn't reach at least .500. But while Westminster, Key and North Carroll all appear strong again and South Carroll still has talent left after graduation hit hard, the Lions should have a much better season.
The Lions went 4-10 last year, but started this season with two victories -- including a 3-1 decision over South Carroll.
"You go into a game knowing it can go either way," said Derwin. "Since you're in a small county, you always want to be the best in the county. There's more competitiveness."
And the new county tournament could help that. Key does not play in the county, but in last year's inaugural tournament the Class 1A Eagles made the finals before falling to Class 4A Westminster.
The tournament should continue this year in bigger and better form. Key is going to play host to it next month. Totten said it will be two days instead of one, which should help the already intense rivalries.
"That's what competition is all about," said Totten.
For right now, however, the competition is good. And the coaches hope it will stay that way.
"We're trying to move volleyball ahead here," said North Carroll coach Don'a Martin.