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Rituals, combos and love: Annapolis Area Christian School volleyball playing a step above during unbeaten regular season

Avery Walker carries rose quartz, a self-love stone, on game days and makes sure she spiritually cleanses.

Kaylynn Brown ate a red Sour Patch Kid before winning the team’s first conference game this fall, so now she eats them before every game.

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The team plays music by DJ Khaled before every practice and match because all they do is “win, win, win no matter what.”

Those rituals might not be the reason Annapolis Area Christian School volleyball is winning so much, but — after completing the first undefeated regular season in program history — the Eagles aren’t counting anything out.

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With the playoffs starting Friday, the Eagles don’t want to change anything about their routines while hunting for their first tournament title since 2017.

After finishing second-to-last in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference standings two years ago, AACS cruised to a 12-0 overall record that included wins over A Conference teams and a 10-0 record in the B Conference this year. AACS finished the regular season with a sweep over Mercy last Friday.

“I don’t think even in ourselves we expected to get this far,” Walker said.

Last year’s team showed signs of this dominance — beating Archbishop Spalding and defending IAAM B champion St. Mary’s on a “bumpy grass court.” But this is still a very different group of players.

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“We have more underclassmen this year. We didn’t know what our team was going to look like and with COVID, we didn’t know what other teams would look like,” senior Kaylee Brookes said. “But I mean — we’re happy with how it turned out.”

It starts with chemistry and positive vibes.

Head coach Cliff Rickard compliments his players on every little success to the point they say it annoys them, but affectionately. The team hands out trophies shaped like lightning bolts or hammers post-game. They choose pre-match words like “perseverance” to focus on.

“We’re like sisters. When we’re on the court and … say Avery gets a kill, we’re all excited for her,” Brown said.

That mild cool in practice translates to the floor. Rickard preaches controlling passion, faith, mental toughness, effort and relationships with one another. It leads to mastery over what can’t be controlled, such as the score.

“You’re the one taking control of the court when you’re running the game. We work so well together,” Walker said.

Maturity is expected of the eight AACS seniors, but it’s a happy surprise when in shows among the sophomores. None played more than five varsity games before this fall. Many are naturals, Rickard said, but the dedication the younger players put in is the reason the team, as a whole, can play a level above their competitors.

A victory over IAAM A Conference opponent Archbishop Spalding showed that all the hard work has paid off, sophomore Madison Sidney said.

“As the season went on, we bought in more as a team,” she said. “After the Spalding win, our confidence shot straight up.”

Every player brings different gifts to the court, according to sophomore Malani Martin who leads the team with 70 kills. She is followed by Walker with 57 and Sidney with 44.

Three players have 30 aces or more — Walker (40), Martin (30) and sophomore Madison Sidney (30). Three have 30 digs or more — sophomore Elena Woody (39), Martin (34) and Walker (30). Brown leads the bunch with 16 blocks.

Malani Martin works during Annapolis Area Christian School volleyball practice on Oct. 19, 2021.
Malani Martin works during Annapolis Area Christian School volleyball practice on Oct. 19, 2021. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Assistant coach Karyn Brookes said she has yet to see other teams running the kind of tandem and combo plays that AACS is this season.

At a tournament hosted by Arundel, the Eagles frustrated St. Mary’s Ryken with their complex plays.

“Their coach looks over at me and said, ‘Will you stop doing that?’” Rickard recalled, laughing. “‘You look like a college team!’”

Despite their structured approach, AACS had to learn how to deal with adversity like losing players to injury and sickness. Rickard asks his players to drill out of position in practice.

“We have the people willing to step up and play anywhere that is needed,” Brookes said.

The Eagles thrashed every opponent they met until Sept. 29 against St. John’s Catholic Prep. Even though their starting libero was out, restructuring the whole floor, everything went as usual for two sets.

But, as Walker admits, the team got lazy after that. SJCP won the third set — the first set AACS had dropped all season to that point — and then the next. It caught the team off guard, Brown said.

Tied 2-2, Rickard pulled his team together, grinning, and said, “Isn’t this awesome?”

“No pressure, no diamonds,” Rickard said. “I embrace the grind because you need to know how good you are.”

AACS needed the experience. Come playoffs, anything could throw off their rhythm and they can’t let that obstruct their path to a crown.

“Throughout the game, you could see us trusting each other more,” Brown said of the fifth set. “Adding a little more cohesiveness. I think that’s the best game we ever played.”

It’s a lesson they had learned early in scrimmages. AACS scheduled Maryvale first in the preseason — the toughest team in the A Conference — and lost. The next day, Brown said, they told themselves to get it together.

“We realized that everyone had high expectations for us,” she said.

Those high expectations poured over come the fifth set against SJCP. A loaded AACS crowd screamed for their Eagles. Had the gym been empty or the game been on the road, Walker and Brown said, they might’ve folded. Instead, they beat SJCP 15-4.

In just one season, volleyball has risen to rule the hearts of the school. People come up to the players begging them not to lose. Students recognize the captains in the halls. At the school’s recent open house, a little girl approached the team and said she wanted to play volleyball here.

“The support we get is amazing. Our student section is always full,” Martin said. “People will talk about us like ‘Oh, you’re that girl from volleyball.’ I never thought we’d get to this point where our school is known for volleyball.”

Everyone feels the pressure to finish this season with a title, but the eight seniors feel it especially. To handle that, they do what they do in practice: approach it with joy instead stress.

“We could win a championship our senior year. It is pressure,” Brookes said. “But mostly, we’re just enjoying it.”

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