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Baltimore Sun volleyball preview: Storylines, players to watch and top 15 teams heading into 2021 season

Broadneck senior Natalie Luscomb sets the ball during practice on Aug. 25. Luscomb is the top returning player for the Bruins, who are ranked No. 1 preseason.
Broadneck senior Natalie Luscomb sets the ball during practice on Aug. 25. Luscomb is the top returning player for the Bruins, who are ranked No. 1 preseason. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Here’s what you need to know for the 2021 volleyball season in the Baltimore area:

Storylines to watch

How will missing a full season affect the quality of play?

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This season will bring a mixed bag to the local volleyball scene. Thanks to the coronavirus, several schools played shortened seasons last year, some in the fall or winter and some in the spring, while others didn’t play at all. Even some of the area’s club teams didn’t play last year.

The ability to adjust on the fly could determine success or failure.

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Will moving the public school state championships to Harford County affect volleyball at the state level?

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association has decided to move the state semifinals and finals to Harford Community College.

How will the change of venue affect attendance at the event, and will the new location be an easier drive for most of the state playoff teams to reach?

How will Crofton High School’s opening affect the balance of power in Anne Arundel County?

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Normally, a new school opening wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but Crofton draws students from an area known to be rich in volleyball talent. The new school will pull students from Arundel and South River high schools, both of which have participated in the state tournament in the last few years, with Arundel returning this year as the 2019 Class 4A state champion. This will be the new Cardinals’ first year of varsity volleyball.

Reservoir volleyball players waves to family and fans as they celebrate winning the Howard County championship against Howard on April 15.
Reservoir volleyball players waves to family and fans as they celebrate winning the Howard County championship against Howard on April 15. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

How will Howard County’s redistricting affect volleyball?

Howard County schools went through massive redistricting, and it should make an impact on some recent powers.

Atholton, which won volleyball state titles in 2016 and 2018, saw 32% of its student body change because of the redistricting. Will the changes to Atholton and other schools in the volleyball-focused county see the balance of power shift, and will new contenders emerge?

Will Broadneck be able to get over the hump this year and win another state title?

Broadneck is no stranger to the top of the standings, but a state title has proven elusive in recent years. Although the school has won six state championships in volleyball, the last one came in 2009.

Coach Tracey Regalbuto has been active at both the club and high school levels, and a state title is all that’s missing on her impressive resume.

Players to watch

Reservoir libero Gabby Allen is one of the area's top returning players.
Reservoir libero Gabby Allen is one of the area's top returning players. (Doug Kapustin For Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Gabby Allen, Reservoir, libero, junior

Gators coach Carole Ferrante says Allen is one of the best players she’s ever coached, and her ability to be the captain of the Reservoir offense will determine a lot about how well the team does.

Hammond outside Safi Hampton is back this fall after opting out of the shortened spring season in Howard County.
Hammond outside Safi Hampton is back this fall after opting out of the shortened spring season in Howard County. (Terrance Williams/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Safi Hampton, Hammond, outside hitter, junior

At 6-foot-1, Hampton is probably the best player in the area that you’ve never heard of. Golden Bears coach Anne Corey says she has a great volleyball IQ, and that she can easily play for some of the area’s better programs. Hampton was a star as a freshman but opted out of the shortened Howard County season in the spring.

Broadneck outside hitter Natalie Luscomb is the top player on the area's No. 1 ranked team.
Broadneck outside hitter Natalie Luscomb is the top player on the area's No. 1 ranked team. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Natalie Luscomb, Broadneck, outside hitter, senior

Luscomb, a four-year starter, is the only senior on a well-balanced team that was the state runner-up two years ago. At 6-foot-1, her height makes her a daunting presence at the net, and she will be counted on to lead the Bruins offense.

Oakland Mills outside hitter Zhenzhu Nelson is a two-time first team All-Howard County player who is back this fall after opting out of the shortened season in the spring.
Oakland Mills outside hitter Zhenzhu Nelson is a two-time first team All-Howard County player who is back this fall after opting out of the shortened season in the spring. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Zhenzhu Nelson, Oakland Mills, outside hitter, senior

An All-County first-team selection as a freshman and sophomore, Nelson led Howard County with 235 kills in 2019 but opted out of the shortened spring season. Also a wrestler, Nelson does it all for the Scorpions, as she has two-year totals of 359 digs, 101 aces and 58 blocks to go with 443 kills.

Kelenna Onukwugha, shown as a member of Mount de Sales in 2019, has transferred to Howard.
Kelenna Onukwugha, shown as a member of Mount de Sales in 2019, has transferred to Howard. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Kelenna Onukwugha, Howard, outside hitter, junior

The Lions, now in the 3A East region, have big goals this year and Onukwugha’s offense will be instrumental in accomplishing them. She was a first-team All-Metro outside hitter for Mount de Sales’ IAAM A Conference championship team in 2019 before transferring to Howard before the start of last season, and she totaled 38 kills during the shortened campaign for the Lions.

Arundel middle blocker Zaria Ragler is among the few players who competed in the 2019 state championship game for the Wildcats.
Arundel middle blocker Zaria Ragler is among the few players who competed in the 2019 state championship game for the Wildcats. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Zaria Ragler, Arundel, middle blocker, senior

One of a few returnees from a team that won the 4A state title in 2019, Ragler will counted on for her leadership for the young Wildcats. Her offense and blocking will be key in always-tough Anne Arundel County.

Maggie Sale, Severna Park, outside hitter, senior

Sale brings height and a great vertical leap to the table, and she will be a force at the net for the Falcons. Her coach describes her style as “explosive,” and she’ll need to bring senior leadership to a section that features Broadneck and South River.

Caitlyn Shaffrey, Maryvale Prep, outside hitter, senior

Shaffrey is the motor for Maryvale’s offense, and her coach says her biggest attribute is her tenacity and her attitude. Her power makes her hard to block, and she sets a great example as a fourth-year senior starter.

Westminster's Cassi Shields, left, played in the 2019 state tournament.
Westminster's Cassi Shields, left, played in the 2019 state tournament. (Dylan Slagle)

Cassi Shields, Westminster, outside hitter, senior

The Owls lost All-Metro Player of the Year Jiliene Widener in 2019, but Shields has been called her twin on the court. Her ability to put the ball down from anywhere is a huge weapon that Westminster will need if the Owls are to repeat as Carroll County champions.

Charlotte Vale, Dulaney, setter, junior

The captain of Dulaney’s offense, Vale has great hands and a great drive to be successful. The Lions have an inexperienced front line this year, so her ability to distribute the ball will be an instrumental factor in how far Dulaney goes this season.

Preseason top 15 teams

Broadneck coach Tracey Regalbuto watches practice on Aug. 25.
Broadneck coach Tracey Regalbuto watches practice on Aug. 25. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

1. Broadneck

Coach: Tracey Regalbuto

Last season: 3-2

Outlook: The Bruins return seven players from a team that reached the Class 4A state championship in 2019, and six of them are juniors. Although they are young, Broadneck is loaded with talent. Natalie Luscomb, the team’s leading scorer, returns to provide most of the offense.

Reservoir beat Howard for the Howard County title during the shortened season in the spring.
Reservoir beat Howard for the Howard County title during the shortened season in the spring. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

2. Reservoir

Coach: Carole Ferrante

Last season: 10-0

Outlook: The Gators, who won the county title during a shortened season in the spring, will be strong on defense, led by libero Gabby Allen. Outside hitter Samiha Foster, who transferred from St. Johns College High School, will also be a key piece. Reservoir had 90 girls try out, and there’s a wealth of talent to draw from. This is the team to beat in Howard County.

Arundel coach Ashley Yuscavage always gets the most out of her teams, and this season she won't have the same dominant group she had that helped the program win the 2019 4A state title.
Arundel coach Ashley Yuscavage always gets the most out of her teams, and this season she won't have the same dominant group she had that helped the program win the 2019 4A state title. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

3. Arundel

Coach: Ashley Yuscavage

Last season: 5-0

Outlook: The 2019 4A state champions return five seniors, and Yuscavage always seems to get the best out of her players. The Wildcats, who beat Broadneck and Severna Park in five-set thrillers in the spring, have a great nucleus, but they need to develop beyond the starters. When it’s all said and done, look for Arundel to push Broadneck and Severna Park for the county title.

4. Maryvale Prep

Coach: Missy Little

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Last season: DNP

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Outlook: Although the 2019 season ended with a loss to Mount de Sales in the IAAM A Conference championship game, Little has a good core to build around. The Lions return three seniors, each with four years of varsity experience. If Maryvale can find a setter, the Lions should be the favorite in the A Conference.

Howard went 10-1 during the shortened season in the spring.
Howard went 10-1 during the shortened season in the spring. (file photo courtesy of Woody Eaton)

5. Howard

Coach: Allison McCoy

Last season: 10-1

Outlook: McCoy has a talented group, led by Kelenna Onukwugha, who was an All-Metro first-team outside hitter as a freshman at Mount de Sales in 2019. Finding a reliable setter is the only thing that might hold the Lions back. The Howard County race could come down to the Lions and Reservoir.

6. Archbishop Spalding

Coach: Corby Lawrence

Last season: 4-1-1

Outlook: The Cavaliers return a good mix from last year’s abbreviated season, and Lawrence likes his starting lineup, which is mostly juniors and seniors. If the team can stay healthy and get some contributions off the bench, the Cavs should challenge Maryvale for the A Conference title.

7. Westminster

Coach: Evan Frock

Last season: 8-0

Outlook: Westminster lost seven starters from last season. Still, a good nucleus returns for the 2019 state semifinalists. Led by outside hitter Cassi Shields, the Owls should be the favorite again in Carroll County. The development of the younger players on the team will determine how far this team goes.

8. Dulaney

Coach: Cary Lyon

Last season: 6-1

Outlook: Dulaney returns one of the best setters in the area in junior Charlotte Vail, and Lyon likes his starting group. Passing and serving should be strengths for the Lions, but they must improve offensively if they want to compete at the state level.

9. Century

Coach: Brian Trumbo

Last season: 7-1

Outlook: The Knights won the 2A state title in 2019, and Century returns two starters from that team in senior outside hitters Ava Brandt and Hannah Zabik. The key question is whether the Knights have enough to challenge Westminster for the county title.

10. Severna Park

Coach: Tim Dunbar

Last season: 3-2

Outlook: Dunbar had six starters graduate in the spring but still returns an experienced group, led by 5-9 outside hitter Maggie Sale, and should have confidence after beating Broadneck in four sets in March. Like many teams in the area this year, the core of the team is solid, but the younger players will need to grow up quickly. How fast they do will determine how well the Falcons do.

11. Atholton

Coach: Larry Schofield

Last season: 3-3

Outlook: The Raiders have been affected by graduation and redistricting, but Schofield always has his teams prepared to compete for titles. Some experience returns in setter Kelly He and outside Kendall Masom and the defense should be the strength, but the Raiders will need to develop on offense quickly to battle the elites.

12. Hereford

Coach: Dave Scheiner

Last season: 8-1

Outlook: The Bulls lost six seniors, by Scheiner is pleased with his returnees. Seniors Rylee McDaniel (setter) and Emma Thompson (libero) will be relied upon for their leadership. If the Bulls can find a consistent offense and take advantage of their height, they will contend with Dulaney for the Baltimore County title.

13. Bel Air

Coach: Dave Simon

Last season: DNP

Outlook: Simon describes the Bobcats as scrappy, and they might again be the team to beat in the Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference. The offense will be led by 6-foot outside hitter Lexi Couch, and that should be the team’s strength. If the Bobcats have a weakness, it’s their depth.

14. Mount de Sales

Coach: Gary Troy

Last season: 6-1-1

Outlook: The Sailors will be balanced, but the team lost two key pieces in All-Metro players Mary Grace Goyena (to graduation) and Onukwugha (transferred to Howard). If the team can fill these holes, they can contend for the conference title with Maryvale and Spalding.

15. Glenelg

Coach: Jason Monjes

Last season: 3-4

Outlook: The have a young core of sophomores, led by outside hitter McKenzie Calhoun and setter Lindsay Kelley. Monjes says defense will be the strength of the team, but passing is a weakness. The young Gladiators will have to grow up fast to compete in Howard County.

Others considered: Crofton, Centennial, Liberty, River Hill, Towson.

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