As Anna Romano looks around the gym at Mount Hebron before her volleyball team's practice, she can't help but smile and shake her head.
"At this point in my life, I never pictured myself back here," she said before pausing. "But I'm glad I am."
Romano is one of two area coaches, along with Liberty's Mike Rainbow, to take over a high-profile team this year. But neither will be in unfamiliar territory.
Romano graduated from Mount Hebron in 2007 after playing volleyball for legendary coach Mike Moynihan. When the school year ended for Howard County last year, Moynihan retired after 15 seasons.
Romano said that the lessons Moynihan taught her as a student and player have stuck with her since she's left high school.
"One of the first things he ever told me was that I was a talented player," Romano said. "That confidence of having a coach believe in me has instilled a confidence that I still have to this day. I saw what an impact a great coach can have on a young girl's life, and it really made me want to coach."
After graduating from Mount Hebron, Romano attended High Point in North Carolina, where she played volleyball for a year before a coaching change left her on the outside looking in. She still loved the sport, and continued to play at an intramural level. She also kept her eye on the Mount Hebron program, where her mom, Susan Wiggs, was the junior varsity coach.
She returned to the area in 2012 after college and reconnected with Mike Bossom, now the Centennial coach, about a position with the Columbia Volleyball Club. She started there in 2013, coaching the under-15 team. Thanks to her mom's involvement at her alma mater, she began to gravitate back to Mount Hebron.
"A few things had changed when I got back," Romano said. "The school had been renovated, so it looked a little different. Mike was still there, though, and he asked me to assist him on the varsity level. He was still teaching volleyball and life lessons, and I began to tell myself, 'I can do this.' "
Moynihan had hinted at retirement for a few seasons, and, when he decided to call it a career after last season, Romano knew she was ready.
"I knew it was something I wanted to do," said Romano, who works full-time as a financial analyst for Lockheed Martin.
"I think my experience with Mike and with the school was one of the reasons they gave me the job. I just love being in this environment. I love the challenge of coaching these girls. Mount Hebron has always been a special place to me. I met my husband here. I have played for so many impactful coaches, including Mike, and now I get to have that impact on these girls."
Rainbow didn't have to look far to see the opportunity in front of him. He just had to look across the hall.
"My classroom is about 10 feet from the gym at Liberty, and I saw the girls playing and I missed the rapport I had with them. I missed being their coach."
Rainbow, one of the area's best club coaches, had led the Lions to a 44-11 record from 2013 to 2015 before family pressures and a long commute from Essex each day forced him to step down after the 2015 season.
"I was all over the place," said Rainbow, who's first tenure at the Eldersburg school ended with a loss to Rising Sun in the Class 2A state semifinals. "I was coaching a club team that required us to play all over the country, so I was always traveling. It just got to be too much, and something had to go."
Meanwhile, Liberty was having an uncharacteristically bad season last year. The Lions finished 8-7, and Rainbow started to get the itch to coach at the high-school level again.
"We were hanging ornaments on our Christmas tree, and my wife comes across an ornament that some of my Liberty players had given me," Rainbow said. "It was in the school colors, and it said 'Coach Mike' on it. I teared up when I saw it, and it helped me to realize that I missed being part of helping these young ladies to grow."
Last year, the Rainbows moved to a new house in the Liberty school district, shortening his commute and making a return possible.
"I love the school, and we really wanted to be a part of the Liberty community. We'd built a [volleyball] culture here, and some of the girls wanted me to come back," Rainbow said. "It was tough to say no, so I decided not to."
Romano and Rainbow face different challenges this season. The Vikings will be in a rebuilding mode in Howard County, the area's toughest league, after graduating All-Metro first-team player Elayna Williams, now at UMBC. Liberty will begin the season ranked eighth and could be in the thick of the championship race in an improved Carroll County.
For both, it was a long road, but a rewarding one.
"I just want to run a program that produces great volleyball players, but even more importantly, great young ladies," Rainbow said. "That's how I'll know I've made an impact."