Underclassmen leading the way for Baltimore-area girls volleyball teams

For The Baltimore Sun

After the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference playoffs ended last year, Mount de Sales again found itself at the top of the rankings among Baltimore-area private schools. The Sailors rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat rival St. Paul’s, 3-2, and claim the crown.

It wasn’t so much that Mount de Sales won the championship that shocked many people. It was how they did it.

It wasn’t the seasoned seniors who led the way, but two super freshmen, Mary Grace Goyena and Chidinma Onukwugha. The two are trendsetters in local volleyball as more top teams are being led by underclassmen.

While coaches are usually left hoping they find another star after their last one graduated, the trend is allowing programs to build for the long haul with the knowledge that a player will be returning for multiple seasons.

“I have my core set for the next three years,” said Mount de Sales coach Pat Dayton, who enters his first season with the fourth-ranked Sailors. “I just have to find the pieces to put around them and the train will keep moving. I was the assistant coach at St. Pauls’ before coming here, so I saw how good they were. They showed up out nowhere, and they were pretty impressive.”

Dayton says the pair weren’t the reason he took the job at Mount de Sales, but having them there certainly didn’t hurt.

“They’re a big draw,” Dayton said. “You never know what the future holds, but they have a chance to win the conference championship all four years. That’s pretty special.”

Although Goyena and Onukwugha are two great examples of this trend, others can be found in the public schools as well. At Westminster, the Owls made a run at the Class 3A state title last year before losing in the state championship to Northern-Calvert. The third-ranked Owls were led by All-Metro first team outside hitter Jilienne Widener, a sophomore. Like the pair at Mount de Sales, Widener not only was on the team as a freshman, but was the leader.

“She is the leader because of her play on the court, but we like to be a little unconventional and go against the status quo,” Westminster coach Ed Benish said. “On our team, it kind of solidified the idea that everyone is valued equally. I think on a senior-dominated team, the seniors kind of drown out the voices of others. We have a senior captain [Emily Bartlett] and a junior captain [Widener], so all voices are heard.”

Liberty, The Baltimore Sun’s ninth-ranked team entering the season, will rely on setter Ali Whitworth to run the offense. Another member of the All-Metro first team last year, Whitworth is a junior this year.

Her coach, Mike Rainbow, says her knowledge and court sense are a prime asset for the Lions.

“As a starter the last two years, Ali is well versed in what our expectations are,” Rainbow said. “It’s not like [being a leader] was a role she asked for, but one that was thrust upon her. She started as a freshman, so she grew with the program. Now as a junior, she embraces the role without thinking and has learned to trust her instincts. She also knows I trust her.”

In Harford County, Bel Air’s then-sophomore setter Olivia Simon was a major reason why the Bobcats went 15-3 before losing in the Class 3A North final to state semifinalist Towson. That season, one of Bel Air’s finest, allowed the Bobcats to move from the Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference’s lower division to the higher one this year. Simon returns to the fourteenth-ranked Bobcats for her junior year.

In volleyball-rich Howard County, No. 5 Glenelg will also be led by two underclassmen, though they come from a little different route. They are transfers.

Sophomore libero Alyssa Kelly transferred from Good Counsel, one of the Washington-area’s best programs, while junior Maddie Myers, and outside hitter, was home-schooled and is a seasoned club player.

“Having those two here definitely changes the dynamic,” Gladiators coach Jason Monjes said. “What they lack in age, they make up in experience. They’ve both played in top-level club programs, and come to us relatively battle tested. There’s always a worry about how they’re going to fit in with the established group of players on the team, but that certainly has not been a problem for us. They make us a much improved team.”

Freshmen are having an impact on another of the area’s best programs, but in a different way.

When River Hill had open tryouts, coach Lynn Paynter got a shock when she walked in for the first day of practice and found 47 freshmen trying out for the school’s three teams (freshman, junior varsity, varsity). That was on top of the returnees she had from the three teams last year.

The influx was partly because of the county’s effort to move incoming freshmen from overcrowded schools to River Hill.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Paynter, who will carry three of the incoming freshmen on the varsity team. “It was great for our school, and great for our program. I really tried to make sure they all felt welcome. They are new to the school, and I wanted them to feel like they were a part of the River Hill community. I’m counting on the ones we kept to make us better in the future. ”

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