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Stroking a setup for a busy Clark


As the setter for Catonsville's volleyball team, senior Abigail Clark carries a heavy weight on her shoulders, but she can handle it -- and more.

Every day after volleyball practice, Clark heads to Annapolis to train for two hours with the Naval Academy junior swim team. A sprint freestyler and breaststroker, Clark is closing in on qualifying in several events for the Speedo Junior Nationals in March.

Swimming also has made her a better volleyball player. Years of training in the pool have developed the upper body strength and endurance crucial to a good setter, who may handle the ball 50 to 100 times in a match and hundreds of times a day in practice.

Her coaches say Clark sometimes looks exhausted, but they have never heard her complain.

"Sometimes, when I'm really tired at swimming practice after volleyball, I wonder why I do it," said Clark. "But when we get to games and they're fun, I'm glad I do it."

Although she is in her third year on the Comets' varsity, Clark is starting for the first time in coach Debbie Clem's 5-1 offense.

She has had to wait her turn, the latest in a line of heralded Comets setters that have included her sister, Gabrielle, and last year's All-Baltimore City/County pick, Trisha Uttenreither.

She is the third Clark sister to play for Clem. Alexandra, a state championship distance runner, was the first and only hitter.

Just playing at Catonsville, next to a gym wall covered with a record seven state championship banners, can mean a pressure all its own.

"There is pressure on her," said Clem, whose No. 12 Comets are 6-3.

"You can't really see that, because she's pretty calm on the court, and you don't want your setter flustered, anyway. There's always pressure on a setter, because she starts the offense. It's like a quarterback. If you can't call the plays or you don't know who to throw to, you're not going to stay in the match.

"She's been working and pushing and she's getting better every match -- not so much her hands, because she has good hands, but with the concept of the game. I can see the thinking process. She knows when she's made a mistake."

That calm demeanor perfect for a setter also helps Clark manage her hectic schedule, including twice-a-week swims before her school day starts.

"If it wasn't for the type of person she is, in two sports, she would never excel at either or in school," said swimming coach Ken DeGruchy, "but she has the ability to juggle everything she's doing and be above average in both sports and in school.

"She's very humble and she's a very hard worker. If a practice is very hard on her, she never shows it. She's a wonderful person to work with. She's very happy."

Within the next few months, Clark will try to shave a few seconds off her best times to qualify for the junior nationals in swimming.

She needs to drop just four-tenths of a second to meet the cutoff in the 50-yard freestyle, about a second in the 100 freestyle and about three seconds in the 100-yard breaststroke. Clark also swims on a medley relay team that could make the cut.

"I want to go really bad, because this is my last year," said Clark. "I think it would definitely help in college."

When it comes to choosing between volleyball and swimming in college, it will be no contest. After nine years of swimming, Clark wants to stay in the pool.

"She's got a lot of potential. I don't think she's really tapped her ability as a full-time swimmer," said DeGruchy, who does not use weight training for his athletes, preferring to let the colleges introduce those techniques.

"Abigail will do a wonderful job. If she gets into a good school and does some dry-land training, she'll go a lot further."

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