It’s a brave new Washington County high school volleyball world.
For two years, the talk of the county — and rightfully so — was Smithsburg’s unstoppable juggernaut.
Led by two-time Herald-Mail Player of the Year Sara Rishell — currently unleashing her ferocious spikes as a freshman for American University — the Leopards went undefeated on the way to Maryland Class 1A state titles in both 2009 and 2010 and will bring a 38-match winning streak into this season.
But it’s a new year and largely a new squad for Smithsburg. The Leopards may have enough to contend again in 1A, but within the MVAL Antietam, North Hagerstown and Williamsport figure to be the top contenders for conference glory — at least on paper.
“We scrimmaged North and we didn’t beat them, but we played well and they were a good measuring stick,” Smithsburg coach Rachel Brashear said. “North and Williamsport will be two teams to reckon with. We’ll try to keep improving and get ready for the playoffs.”
The Hubs — who went 12-4 last year and came within a point of ending the Leopards’ unbeaten streak late in the regular season — return two of their top three attackers in senior Autumn Fisher and junior Peyton Wallech, as well as their top setter, Brynne Kirsch.
The Wildcats — who went 11-5 last year and showed flashes of brilliance (along with consistency issues) — welcome back their top two attackers in senior Sam Kelly and junior Stacey Christy.
Both North and Williamsport are stepping up in class — the Hubs to 3A from 2A, and the Wildcats to 2A from 1A.
Andrea Parry returns to the bench after missing last season while on maternity leave. The Warriors went 6-10 last year under Andrea Sawtelle — who resumes her duties as the JV coach.
Defense will remain Boonsboro’s calling card — led by senior Tiffany Rohrer, an all-county first-team honoree in 2010. Senior Amber Myers also is scrappy in the back.
“We feel really confident that defense is going to be our strongest asset,” Parry said. “We want to bring the offense around a little more so it makes us a more balanced team. Tiffany does a very nice job being a leader and taking charge. She reads hitters very well and is able to get a touch on just about any ball.”
Juniors Shelby Griffith and Shelby Wallace will share setting duties in a 6-2 set, and they’ll look to set up senior Sydney Parks inside and senior Aurelie King outside. Freshman Taylor Williams could make an impact in the middle.
“It’s going to be a little better attacking-wise,” Parry said. “Sydney’s definitely become a leader and a smart player. She’s able to see the court, and she sets up a solid block. She’s stepped out of her shell from her sophomore year. ... Tayor is definitely a future player to watch.”
The Lions had a solid season for Joe Cartwright in 2010, finishing 13-6. They lost three key pieces from that team but return a couple key pieces as well.
The attack should be led by junior Sarah Couch outside and senior Maria Pifer inside.
“I moved Sarah outside as one of our better attacking options,” Cartwright said. “I’m expecting a lot out of them all the way around, even in the back row.”
Broadfording will play a 6-2 set with senior setters Katie Connolly — a standout on the basketball court — and Anne Hunt.
“Katie’s probably our most consistent setter and she has made tremendous leaps and bounds as a hitter this year,” Cartwright said. “I need Katie both as a setter and a hitter. It’s a bit of a strange lineup, but it works for us. ... Anne’s still kind of new to setting, but she works very hard and is very enthusiastic and vocal on the court. She’s a great encourager.”
Sophomore Kierra White is the Lions’ top defensive specialist.
First-year coach Sabrina Lee has a relatively experienced Blazers squad returning after a 9-7 campaign a year ago.
Junior setter Sarah Elwood leads the way. She was an all-county second-team selection in 2010 and is capable of attacking as effectively as she sets up teammates.
How much setting Elwood will do — and how much senior Abby Hoosier and sophomore Jessica Long will do — remains a mystery.
“We’ve got a race going,” Lee said. “We’re going with a 6-2, so we’re leaving it wide open. The competition is changing it up daily.”
Seniors Emily Winters and Alexa Mills and sophomores Kyleigh Stottlemyer and Abby Pinkham are outside attacking options. Senior Morgan Purdham — who’s fully recovered from an ACL injury suffered late last winter — and freshman Kristen Mellott will be options in the middle.
“I’m expecting some big things out of Kristen,” Lee said. “I just have to work on her aggressiveness. She’s tentative because she’s young, but when she gets a hold of it, she can kill somebody. ... I’m looking for Emily and Alexa to be leaders offensively and defensively.”
Junior Sarah Blickenstaff will be the primary defensive specialist.
“She’s a little firecracker. She’s a go-getter back there,” Lee said. “I’m hoping we’re going to grow over the next 3-4 years. I’m optimistic.”
Heather Slough’s Knights lost three key contributors from last year’s squad that went 8-10, so it’s going to be another year of teaching and growing.
“We lost four starters, so it’s another rebuilding year,” Slough said. “They’re out here to work hard and improve.”
A group of sophomores — Brooke Morgan, Meredith Craig and Heather Groves — will be Grace’s top attackers. Morgan has a pedigree: Older sister Rebecca Morgan was a star outside hitter for the Knights and Hagerstown Community College.
“Brooke learns very quickly and she’s such a smart player,” Slough said. “She can read the court and is a leader.”
Senior Camille Sprecher and junior Caitlin Cox likely will share setting duties. Sprecher and sophomore Allie Cox will anchor the back row.
“We’re still figuring out the setter spot. They’ll share time equally for now,” Slough said. “Allie and Camille are our strongest defensively.”
The Panthers had one of their best seasons in recent memory last year, a 10-5 campaign led by middle hitter Maureen Leavy, an all-county first-team honoree.
Leavy graduated, so it’s back to a teamwork-first approach for coach Laura Baker.
“We actually have nine juniors on the varsity, and that core group did extremely well last year on the JV team,” Baker said. “We have more team chemistry this year. Maureen was a standout last year, but I like our chemistry and the team concept this year. I’m really able to use everyone.”
Setters Tiffany Younker, a senior, and Alisa Shives, a junior, will look to set up the Panthers’ top option in senior middle hitter Lyndsay Himes. Juniors Joan Leavy — Maureen’s younger sister — and Sara Wagner are secondary options.
“Lyndsay will be our top attacker with Sara and Joan being pretty balanced as our No. 2,” Baker said. “We’re just not sure who we want to make our second permanent middle, we’re still tweaking that. Tiffany’s getting used to using different sets, and now she’s trying to be a mentor with Alisa.”
Junior Emily Harvey will anchor the back row.
“Emily’s definitely a smart player and she’s been able to read hits very well,” Baker said.
There’s no doubt about it: Right now, Young-Sook Anderson’s Eagles are the Goliath of the Mason Dixon Christian Conference.
Heritage went 19-0 last year, sweeping the MDCC regular-season and tournament titles before prevailing at the Maryland Christian School Tournament to cap the season. They return every starter — including all-county first team middle hitter Kara Stamper and second-team setter Callie Butts.
“I want to bring our level up. I’m trying to challenge our girls,” Anderson said. “Our goal is to keep playing strong.”
Stamper, a junior, averaged nearly five kills per game last year and is arguably the top returning attacker in the county. She played club ball for the Revolution in Chambersburg, Pa., over the summer. Opponents will get a steady dose of Butts-to-Stamper this season.
“Kara’s timing and her angles are a lot better,” Anderson said. “Those two playing together is obviously huge for us.”
Seniors Rachel Clarke and Jessica Gaylor return as secondary attacking options — Clarke will be the main target when Stamper is in the back row. Seniors Kathleen Kidd and Stephanie O’Brien will once again anchor the defense.
There’s no secret about the Hubs’ plans this season — Kirsch will be setting up Wallech and Fisher repeatedly, and the dazzling duo may give North the best attack in the county.
“Peyton has become a little more versatile,” Crawford said. “She’s not hitting everything as hard as she can, she’s seeing the block and hitting the holes. We’re going to rely on her and Autumn a lot.”
Crawford stresses the importance of serve receive and defense every year, and once again it’s a priority. Senior Mollie Johnson will anchor the back row and will be joined by sophomore Michey Moody and freshman Alexis McCarthy.
“We’re probably more athletic in the back row than we’ve been in the past, and as soon as they start speaking up and gaining confidence, that will be a good thing,” Crawford said.
Look out for senior Iman Scott on the outside. Scott, a basketball standout who’s new to the volleyball team, could be an X-factor.
Larry Cullinane may be a first-year coach for the Saints, but he’s far from a first-year coach. The 27-year veteran has experience in numerous sports, including basketball stints at St. John’s Catholic (assisting Stu Vetter) and most recently an eight-year run at Notre Dame Academy, where he led the girls team to national prominence before taking a recent break.
“I’m really looking forward to being back in the private school setting,” Cullinane said. “The ladies are attentive and eager to learn, which is great. We’re going to play very hard. I like the young players on the team and I think we’re going to develop into a very successful team.”
Cullinane called senior attacker Jordan Wills and senior setter Carrie Spicher the leaders of the team: “They’re the two returnees with the most experience and in the key roles. ... Wills will be asked to do quite a bit. She will definitely back-row hit.”
Senior Alicia Herrera will anchor the back row, with senior Renee Dill filling in wherever she’s needed. Sophomore McKenna Hough can set and attack.
“McKenna is 5-10 and very athletic,” Cullinane said. “She played quite a bit before she came to Saint James, so I anticipate her almost being a full-time player. Her size and athleticism are needed.”
The Leopards’ offense will certainly be more spread out this season. It will be led by senior middle hitter Danielle Harbaugh, the lone returning starter who earned all-county second-team honors in 2010.
“She’s been on the varsity for three years and a part of two championship teams, so she’s going to be key to our offense,” Brashear said. “Our offense this year will be a little more balanced. We need contributions from role players last year who have to step up and be leaders.”
Juniors Kinsey Shifflett and Haley Caudell and sophomore Amanda Snowden will get opportunities in the attack. Senior Logan Bachtell is recovering from a knee injury and may return at some point.
Smithsburg will play a 6-2 set with setters Sarah Shives, a senior, and Peyton Belella — a freshman who’s the younger sister of Taylor Belella, who graduated in the spring and is now playing at Shepherd University.
Seniors Karah Knight and Rachel Yoder will lead the back row, with freshman Marissa Dangler possibly getting playing time.
“It’s just going to take time. When you’re rebuilding you have to teach all over again,” Brashear said. “My goal is to keep getting better in each game and practice and hope to peak at right time. This is a whole new chemistry. These girls aren’t used to each other yet and it’s going to take some time to develop. ... I’m not even sure who my starting six is going to be.”
The teaching process continues for Chuck Weaver, whose Rebels remain young with only two seniors returning from a squad that went 3-12 in 2010.
“We’re still definitely building,” Weaver said. “I think we’ll be a little stronger than last year, but certainly not a powerhouse.”
The two seniors — middle hitter Bobbi Burnett and outside hitter Lauren Fahrney — are showing leadership along with junior setter Victoria Pearl.
“Victoria is the vocal leader. She knows the game well. This will be her second year on varsity and she’s been playing for me in club for a while. She knows strategy and what I like,” Weaver said. “Bobbi and Lauren (help with) morale and discipline. Lauren’s definitely setting an example.”
Junior Hayley Freeman will likely be the top attacking option outside, with Burnett and junior Lexi Shaffer adding support from the middle. Pearl and sophomore Kirsten Mohar will set in a 6-2 formation, with juniors Ashlyn Hinkle and Regan Marshalleck anchoring the defense.
St. Maria Goretti
Most of the starters return from a squad that went through a growing process during a difficult 2-14 season a year ago. Senior attacker Ellie Burke and senior setter Jean Hogan are the leaders.
“They’ve definitely matured. They play more as a team and they are looking to actually win,” coach Tonya Angle said. “We’re a lot stronger. I have four middles this year and that’s going to be a big help.”
The Gaels have lots of players who could contribute offensively. Seniors Mary Hackney and Beth Eich, juniors Jessica Swarner, Hannah Geesaman and Courtney Dorsey and freshman Abbey Eich all will have opportunities.
Hackney will do triple-duty as the best back-row player and the back-up setter behind Burke.
“Mary’s job will be getting everywhere to get the ball,” Angle said. “She’s quick, she dives for the ball and she’s very aggressive. She always knows where she’s to be.”
If the Wildcats can consistently get the ball up to Kelly on the outside and Christy in the middle, they will consistently cause havoc for opponents — but consistency is Crabtree’s biggest worry.
“I think our team chemistry is a lot better. We’re all working for the same goal and there’s no selfishness,” Crabtree said. “Our passing game is key. We know we have the weapons, we just have to find the right combination to get it to them.”
That combination will include setters Summer Neff, a senior, and sophomore newcomer Emily Taylor, who will play together in a 6-2 set. Seniors Ariah Giles and Katie Seese and junior Madison Depew add additional attacking options.
Everyone will have to pitch in at the back with standout defensive specialist Trisha Leigh — an all-county first-team honoree last year — gone.
“Ariah is my silent weapon. Madison is coming on strong as well,” Crabtree said. “Teams will be worrying about Stacey and Sam and they’re going to forget about the rest of us, and I hope they come through and do what I know they can do.”
Washington County Volleyball 2011: Hubs, Wildcats look to unseat Smithsburg
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