When Northwest High School senior Rachel Eng first stepped onto the volleyball court as a freshman, she said she had no idea what she was doing.
In August 2009, Eng decided to learn the sport at the urging of her mother and picked up a volleyball in an organized fashion for the first time a week before tryouts began at the Germantown school.
“I knew nothing and was basically lost,” she said during an interview following the Jaguars’ four-set loss at Paint Branch last week. “I just went where I was told to go. It was nerve-racking and I didn’t even know if I was going to make the junior varsity team.”
Now, the three-year varsity outside hitter is one of the Jaguars’ primary offensive threats and has helped the program to its best stretch in school’s 14-year history. Last fall, Northwest recorded its finest season with a 14-3 record and advanced to the Class 4A West Region final.
Eng, along with five other classmates, including setter Hiromi Konishi and libero Rachel Cox-Rosen, have been integral to the program’s development.
“It has been really fun,” fourth-year coach Stephanie Withers said. “Rachel Eng, [Cox-Rosen and Konishi] have been really important to our success. They are great leaders, have huge goals and are super fun to coach.”
The keys to the Jaguars’ recent success have been the team’s maturity and ability to develop players without club volleyball experience. Withers’ ability to relate to her players and background as a standout player at Quince Orchard in the early 2000s and Salisbury University also has helped. Her sister, Tara Smith, a member of The Gazette’s All-Decade team for the 2000s, is the junior varsity coach.
“We’ve all learned so much from coach Withers,” said Eng, who began playing for the Montgomery Village Sports Association following a high school season. Cox-Rosen and Konishi had experience with MVSA prior to their freshman season. “For me, I went from not learning how to play at all to loving volleyball. We’ve all just grown up and it has truly been an amazing experience.”
Cox-Rosen, a four-year varsity player, agreed.
“Hiromi is one of the best setters in the county and Rachel is consistently getting kills,” she said. “A lot of us didn’t have volleyball knowledge before high school and some of the girls did. But all of us, the entire team, has really helped Northwest become a county power to be reckoned with.”
Northwest (5-3) has been solid — albeit a tad inconsistent — through the first half of the season. The Jaguars have defeated most of the teams they were expected to, but recorded an uncharacteristic loss to Paint Branch. They also challenged undefeated Damascus in a five-set defeat and were swept by two-time reigning Class 4A state champion Sherwood.
Senior starting middle hitter Amy Wang tore her anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments during a match last month and is out for the remainder of the season.
“We need to pick it up and we certainly can,” Cox-Rosen said. “We have a lot of experienced players, but we did have a lot of new players in the lineup rotation. We just need to mesh more and play the same way all the time.”
Added Konishi: “I expected all of this success. We all know and like each other and I think we will go far again.”