Annika Schwartz did not begin with the spike that snapped Sherwood High School’s 68 consecutive five-match victories on a volleyball court. She didn’t even begin with her senior year. Instead, her volleyball tenure began about five years ago, when she was 13-years-old.
Coached by current Academy of the Holy Cross coach Dave Geiser for the Montgomery Village Sports Association, Schwartz lined up alongside Autumn Jenkins, a Damascus graduate now playing at the University of Delaware, former Walter Johnson setter Stephanie Paul, now at William and Mary, current Walter Johnson hitter Brigid Morris, Winston Churchill hitter Kaitlyn Hillard and teammates Carly Marella and Madison Wyatt.
“I was looking at All-Gazette last year and I realized I had coached 60 percent of the girls,” Geiser said. “Almost all of those girls came in as a freshman and made varsity and played.”
“That was a great year,” Schwartz added. Great enough that she decided to drop all of her other various sports to concentrate on volleyball, same as Marella did with swimming that season. Now, Schwartz is the best hitter on arguably the most talented team in the state — Damascus earned the top seed in the 3A West Region for the start of this week’s playoffs — while the duo has developed into one of the most potent setter-hitter combinations in the area.
“She knows where I want it and I know where she’s going to put it,” said Schwartz, who leads the team with 166 kills. “It helps a lot, not even just the fundamental stuff but the emotional stuff. I know what’s going on inside her head, whether it’s going to be a back set to Madi or a set to me. We have chemistry.”
The two have played together since they both picked up a volleyball for the first time at the age of 9. Even then, Marella impressed coaches with her soft hands and touch around the net. Schwartz did the same with her ability to put it down from wherever the setter dished it out. It’s only become better from there.
“I’ve been her setter for forever,” Marella said. “Annika always likes it really ... quicker, not too high. A lot of hitters like it off the net to give them a little more room to work around the block.”
High, quick, low, back, normal — whatever, really. It’s working. Schwartz logged at least 20 kills in four of the last six regular season matches, and the two she didn’t were against struggling teams in which her services weren’t needed in their entirety.
“She’s on fire,” coach Becky Ronquillo said. “I’m telling you, she’s been on fire pretty much the whole season so good for her.”
Schwartz’s numbers are both boosted and recessed by the platoon of hitters she is surrounded by in Wyatt and Alex Nelligan. Marella has more options to divvy it out to, but teams can’t load a block to shut down Schwartz when there are hitters abound. Being a left-handed player, Wyatt provides a different look for blockers to worry about while Nelligan would be a No. 1 hitter on most teams in the county with the exception of a few. Together, the trio has combined for nearly 400 kills, an average of 27.3 per match, more than a full game’s worth of points.
“We just got to think, ‘Where do we want to be? Where do we want to be?’” Schwartz said. “Becky always says, ‘You don’t want to get to Ritchie [Coliseum, site of the state championships], you want to win at Ritchie.’ We just got to keep moving, keep going.”
The senior’s hitting has caught the attention of a number of college coaches, namely that of Stevenson’s Dave Trumbo, who called Schwartz “the prototype of all the kids we want to recruit at Stevenson.”
“We’re not particularly tall but we’re very athletic,” said Trumbo, who is currently overseeing a 30-1 Mustangs team ranked No. 20 in the country. “And Annika, being [5-foot-8], 5-9 (Schwartz is listed at 5-7), with a 27-inch vertical, she fits right in.”
Beginning Thursday, the state will see how well Damascus fits in with this year’s playoff picture. Not since 2009 has Ronquillo’s squad made it to College Park, and the Swarmin’ Hornets have never made the return trip with a trophy in hand. Schwartz, Marella, Nelligan, Wyatt, and the enviable connection between them could be the “it” factor they’ve been missing.
“We want it so bad,” Marella said. “The whole team, we’re so competitive. Annika, Madi, Alex and I, we’re all seniors, and this is it.”