If the 2013 Montgomery County girls volleyball season proved anything, it was that the next best thing to having a dominant player was having an abundance of experienced players. Poolesville and Damascus high schools, arguably the county’s two most successful teams last season, both rode sizable senior classes to a Class 2A state runner-up and a 3A state championship finish, respectively.
But 2014 is a new season, and while the value of a veteran core remains timeless, a surprise team with a divergent approach is causing a stir within the county.
Northwest, a team that has experienced moderate success under sixth-year coach Stephanie Blake, is suddenly being described as, “a rising power,” and “the class of the county,” by several coaches. The Jaguars turned more than a few heads this summer when they won the Champions of Tomorrow summer league, and it’s the key to their sudden ascension that has opposing coaches on edge: experienced, talented and big youth.
The senior-less Jaguars feature five juniors that started and contributed last year as sophomores.
“Last year, I held them to the same expectations I held my seniors to, so they kind of grew with it and know what I expect now,” Blake said of her team’s young nucleus. “Even though they’re not seniors, they kind of need to act like they are because they can play like they’re seniors.”
While the inexperience that often comes with youth likely won’t play a factor in Northwest’s success this season, the Jaguars height and talent certainly will. The Jaguars lineup features a trio of 5-foot-10 players that can make a sizeable impact the moment they set foot on the court. The newest addition to the lineup is freshman setter Janiece Jefferies, who Blake described as “an athletic, all-around great player.” Jefferies will join junior Gabby Bennett, a member of the Under Armour national team, and Emma Liller, a junior outside hitter that Winston Churchill coach Cindy Hillard described as “a standout player.”
Though Northwest’s talented youth are certainly raising some eyebrows, the Jaguars are going to be one of a number of talented teams vying for the top spot that, for the second straight season, seems wide open.
“None of us are loaded, so that just adds to the fun and the parity,” said Gaithersburg coach Michele Staymates, whose Trojans were also mentioned among a handful of coaches feel could vie for county supremacy.
Poolesville, a team almost unanimously selected as a contender among coaches, is going to feature a few new faces after graduating six seniors from last year’s state runner-up team. Coach Fran DuVall, entering her 36th season as a coach, however isn’t fazed.
“The thing I love about team sports is that every year there’s new chemistry,” DuVall said.
Spearheading the Falcons’ on-court synergy should be senior setter Allyson Convers, who Col. Zadok Magruder High School coach Scott Zanni called “the best setter in the county.” Convers should be joined in the middle by 14-year-old sophomore Caroline Leng.
At the Academy of the Holy Cross, coach Dave Geiser is having an easier time than expected trying to find a replacement for last year’s All-Gazette player of the year, Rhamat Alhassan, who led the Tartans to their second-straight Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title. Emily Ryan, a 6-foot-3 sophomore middle hitter, has been, “getting barraged by Division I coaches,” according to Geiser, who seems relatively pleased with his team as a whole.
“I’ve got the best team I’ve had in six years,” he said.
Sherwood, another recent perennial contender, will be under the direction of first-year coach Ben Sanger, who spent the previous three seasons at the helm of the junior varsity program. After coming back down to the pack last season following a stretch of county dominance from 2010-12, Sanger’s Warriors, led by a group of nine seniors, understand what it will take to put the program back on top.
“Since that great run we always have had a target on our backs because everyone wants to beat Sherwood,” Sanger said. “We know that we have to come and fight every game.”