In 2007, Magruder Coach Scott Zanni had an idea.
Over the first decade of his coaching career, schools from larger counties typically kept to themselves. Montgomery County schools played other Montgomery County schools, and private schools played other private schools.
“That was kind of fun, because when it first started, it hadn’t been done before and it generated a lot of interest,” Zanni said. “I think now, there’s more and more schools doing it.”
On Friday, the Colonels lost in straight sets to an out-of-county foe, No. 9 River Hill, despite playing some of their best volleyball of the season. Zanni continues to look outside the county for fresh challenges, and more schools every year adopt a similar approach.
“In order to get seeded for the state tournament at the end of the year, you just have to do well in your own county,” Broadneck Coach David Verostic said. “So the way I look at it, I might as well get some really good matches in.”
Out-of-county matches against top-tier opponents allow coaches like Verostic to replicate a playoff-type atmosphere early in the season, which can often speed up a team’s learning process. Diverse schedules also help coaches get a better feel for the balance of power across the state.
Teams in small counties have always been forced to branch out, but for large-county schools in Maryland, this is a fairly recent trend. Magruder has played 14 matches outside of Montgomery County since 2007, while Sherwood has played five.
“I think it’s expanding. I don’t know how far it’s going to go,” Zanni said. “I don’t think you’ll ever see half of a team’s matches out of county. I don’t think you’ll ever see more than one or two a year. But I think you’ll see more and more teams start to do it with that idea in mind.”
Shifflett would ask a question, and Andrejev would reply with a vagary accompanied by a pronounced eye roll. Her flummoxed coach would coax her to communicate.
In her fourth season on the varsity team, Andrejev has a much better relationship with her coach. A Columbia recruit with 255 assists for the No. 4 Saxons, Andrejev is one of six seniors returning from last year’s Virginia AAA state semifinalist squad.
When her team gets behind, and unforced errors tie knots in Shifflett’s stomach, Andrejev keeps her crew focused on the court. During timeouts, she reports intricacies of mtaches back to her coach.
“Everyone kind of plays off of [Shifflett] differently, because she is a very intense coach,” Andrejev said. “You have to keep that calm environment on the court.”
Andrejev’s soothing presence was key on Sept. 11 against Potomac Falls. The Saxons swept the Panthers eight days before the match, but started unfocused and dropped the first game, 14-25. Thanks to its composure, Langley came back to win a 3-2 contest and keep a win streak alive that currently stands at eight victories.
“They kind of go up and down,” Shifflett said. “They’re good to go, and then they’ll lose focus, and then they’ll come back. We’ll get behind 10 points and we’ll come back and we’ll win. The next set we’ll get behind another six points and we’ll come back and we win. It’s kind of stressful as a coach, but they seem to be good with it.”
In her 16th season, Shifflett said one trait that stands out about this year’s team is competitiveness. Every girl wants to win in every situation, so they know when to flip the switch.
“When it comes time to put the hammer down, they seem to do it,” she said.
As a setter, Andrejev has a front row view of the team’s balance. Four players have at least 61 kills, and five have at least 41 digs. Andrejev said the team has no “complete head cases,” which allows Langley to keep cool in tight games.
She said when the team’s concentration wanes in practice, she makes the girls think about losing to Kellam in last year’s state semifinals.
“We just have to remind ourselves that we’re here for something bigger,” she said. “Imagine yourself in the state finals.”
Balance is the word for Hawks River Hill Coach Lynn Paynter, both in terms of skill around the court and versatility.
“I think we’re balanced in the fact that we have a lot of players who can play different positions,” Paynter said. “I have them in specific positions now, but they’re well-rounded.”
The ninth-ranked Hawks used that balance to slip past Gleneg Tuesday night, 22-25, 25-23 25-16, 25-22, solidifying their place among the top teams in Howard County.
Senior Sydni Horner, who led the Hawks with 11 kills, credited the team’s blockers for energizing the home crowd. But she also said that this year’s team doesn’t have many glaring weaknesses.
“Most people on the team have played other positions,” Horner said, “so we can help cover in other places if there’s a hole somewhere.”
Flint Hill has only dropped two sets this season, both to Broad Run on September 10. . . . Stone Bridge beat then-No. 10 Heritage, 3-1, on Sept. 18, but has a rough road ahead. The Bulldogs face two undefeated teams, No. 1 Loudoun County and No. 6 Madison, on consecutive nights next week, then No. 4 Langley less than a week later. . . . Unblemished Damascus enters the rankings led by senior outside hitter Annika Schwartz, who paces the team in kills (47) and digs (37).
1. Loudoun County (7-0) LR: 1
2. Flint Hill (8-0) LR: 2
3. Stone Bridge (10-0) LR: 3
4. Langley (12-1) LR: 4
5. Sherwood (10-1) LR: 5
6. Madison (15-0) LR: 6
7. Paul VI Catholic (10-1) LR: 8
8. Holy Cross (10-1) LR: 9
9. River Hill (4-1) LR: NR
10. Damascus (5-0) LR: NR
Dropped out: No. 7 Arundel (3-1) , No. 10 Heritage (4-3)
On the bubble: Arundel (3-1), Tuscarora (Va.) (8-1)