The set was right on the money, and so was the approach. Valen Johnson took two steps, wound back her right arm that had been devastating Annapolis Area Christian School Thursday night, leapt well above the net with her impressive vertical jump and then attacked the volleyball with her left hand.
In the confusion of St. Vincent Pallotti High School's prized hitter's mid-air change-up, all six of Annapolis Area Christian's players froze on the spot. Even the few dozen or so fans dotting the Pallotti bleachers went silent, everybody likely in a unanimous state of wonderment. Johnson's right arm had been thwarting blocks all night. So why go with her left?
“I'm working on it,” she said, laughing. “My sister hits really well left-handed so she's been working with it. She can hit both hands.”
Johnson is listed at 5-foot-8, a good six inches shorter than big sister Victoria, a former three-year starter at Pallotti now playing at Howard Community College. As many siblings do, Valen credits her elder for teaching her everything she knows about hitting a volleyball. But there's one thing that no coach, parent or older sister will be able to teach their pupil: height. With the five-inch disparity between the two, Valen doesn't quite have the vertical hitting prowess of her older sibling, but she does have a little more of an outside-the-box style that many taller hitters never have to experiment with.
The impromptu left-handed shot was just a small fraction of the arsenal of shots Valen has at her disposal, and while she admits that she's still polishing a few of them, they have all proven effective at some point or other.
“Victoria was just all power,” coach Scott Fifield said. “Valen has a little more volleyball acumen. She recognizes usually how to turn the hit around the block because that's been necessary for her for her whole career. She jumps well, but she is only 5-foot-7 or so. It helps to have that volleyball knowledge.”
Johnson, a junior in her third year as a varsity starter for the Panthers, is knowledgeable enough that Fifield has put her at literally every position on the court. He considered keeping her as a libero but deemed her wide skill set too valuable to contain to the back row, where her prowess at the net would be completely mitigated. He once waffled between using her exclusively as a hitter too, but it just so happens she's also quite a setter. When she rotates to the back row, she floats up after the ball goes over the net and takes over setting duties.
Despite the fact that she is regularly taking reps at setter, Johnson still has more kills (128) — which ranks in the top 40 in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia region, according to the Washington Post — than the rest of the team combined.
“It's been interesting to see her progress in these three years,” Fifield said. “Her first year, she was the starting outside and her big sister was the other outside and was really the go-to person. But in the last two years she has been the feature hitter and this year she's a whole lot more powerful. She's making us better by making good decisions.”
With the Panthers still struggling to find a true setter, an addition that would completely free up the hitter to swing away every game, it's Johnson's patience that can at times be her best skill, quelling any frustrations at sets that might not necessarily be where she needs them. An area where her patience will never be strained, however, is when she's up to serve. And when she hits that top-spinning sinker of a jump-serve just right, the odds are minimal that a clean pass is going to be the result. On two straight occasions in the matchup with Annapolis Area Christian, an Eagle didn't even manage to get a hand on the serve, eliciting whistles and cheers from the student section.
Fifield, in fact, has faced that very serve in practice. His envy for other teams attempting to return it is somewhere around zero.
“Well that's — yeah, that's great,” he said. “It's a challenging serve so yeah, her serve is tremendous.”