By DANIEL KAUFFMAN
10:42 PM EST, November 11, 2012
For the fourth time ever and the first time since 1994, three Washington County volleyball teams will play in the Maryland state semifinals over the next three days.
In Class 1A, Smithsburg (15-3) is two victories away from its fourth straight state title and its ninth overall — which would tie Northern Calvert for third-most in state history. The Leopards will face Sparrows Point (15-2) in the semifinals Monday evening at 6 at Ritchie Coliseum on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park.
In Class 2A, Williamsport (17-1) is back in the state tournament for the first time since 2005, when the Wildcats won the last of four straight Class 1A state titles. Williamsport has 12 titles in all — second only to Centennial’s 14 — and will face Loch Raven (11-6) on Tuesday evening at 6 in the semifinals.
In Class 3A, North Hagerstown (16-1) — which is two wins away from successfully defending its state title — faces a stiff challenge in undefeated Bel Air (18-0) on Wednesday night at 6 in the semifinals.
Boonsboro, Williamsport and North all reached the state semifinals in 1983. Clear Spring joined the Hubs and Wildcats in the state semifinals in both 1993 and ’94.
In the 38 years that the Maryland state volleyball tournament has been held, at least one Washington County team has reached the state semifinals in 33 of them. County teams have made 48 appearances at states, winning 24 titles — including 21 of the past 31 Class 1A crowns.
“That’s just crazy,” said Wildcats coach Emily Crabtree, who was a player on Williamsport’s 1981 Class B (2A) state title team and has coached four other teams to titles. “I don’t know why this county is so dominant, it’s just that the tradition started long ago and has kept going.”
Hubs coach Megan Crawford points to coaches such as Cindy Neugebauer (six state titles at Williamsport from 1981 to 1992) and Jim Klein (three state titles at Smithsburg from 1998 to 2001) as key figures in the county’s volleyball success.
“(Smithsburg coach) Rachel (Brashear, a player on the Leopards’ 1998 state title team), myself and Emily played under them,” Crawford said. “It’s just a tradition we want to keep alive, and we want to instill the qualities they instilled in us into our players.”
“Cindy Neugebauer was definitely one of the best,” Crabtree said. “She was and still is an awesome teacher. Everything I know about volleyball, I learned from her.”
This year’s Leopards, Wildcats and Hubs have many similarities.
All three teams can count on a go-to star for instant offense — Amanda Snowden for Smithsburg (4.32 kills, 2.06 digs per set), Stacey Christy for Williamsport (4.08 kills, 1.46 blocks per set) and Peyton Wallech for North (5.03 kills, 1.02 blocks, 2.50 digs per set).
All three also have had numerous unsung heroes step up into new roles with success.
Smithsburg has two sophomores (setter Payton Belella and libero Marissa Dangler) and two freshmen (outside hitter Hollee Winders and middle hitter Alaina Black) who are playing significant minutes and making significant contributions. Belella averages 7.62 assists per set, Dangler leads the defense with 4.30 digs per set and Winders is third on the team in kills at 1.56 per set, trailing Snowden and senior Haley Caudell (2.57 per set).
Three juniors have stepped into starting roles at Williamsport and helped the Wildcats return to the state stage. Lindsey Mowbray is second on the team at 2.43 kills per set, Courtney Malott leads the defense with 4.83 digs per set and has played well at the net when needed, and Emily Taylor have taken over as the lone setter in a 5-1 set and averaged 8.22 assists per set.
“Lindsey is our middle when Stacey is out and she’s come into her own ... and exceeded our expectations,” Crabtree said. “I can’t say enough about Courtney. She’s been so versatile. We had to move her to the middle a couple of times and she’s stepped up there. ... Emily is our comedian. She knows when to break the ice, clear the tension a little bit and has been that kind of leader. She’s definitely our quarterback. Whatever she does dictates where the ball goes.”
A pair of sophomores have been key in the Hubs’ return to states. Middle hitter Zoe Schreiber is second on the team in kills (2.86 per set) and blocks (0.55 per set) and first in aces (0.55 per set). Libero Alexis McCarthy (3.91 digs per set) anchors the defense.
Junior Sarah Bentley took over as the starting setter and leads the county at 9.98 assists per set. Juniors Michey Moody and Christine Randall also have stepped up in the playoffs to give North an outside hitting presence and make the Hubs’ attack a little less predictable.
“We went a lot to the middle to begin with this season, and most teams knew where we were going to go,” Crawford said. “We had to get those two more involved on the outside, and once we did, it helped our game a lot. Sarah’s been improving since Day 1, and it’s not easy to step into that role. Every game she plays, she builds confidence and that’s the biggest thing she’s gained. ... Alexis gives us 100 percent every day. You’ll think a ball’s going to fall and she comes out of nowhere to keep it alive. The energy she brings through her play has really helped the girls.”
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