The Wootton High School girls volleyball team has amassed one of the area's most impressive winning streaks ever, capturing 69 consecutive matches.
In those matches, the Patriots have lost only one game.
For those who thought the graduation last spring of top players Bev Stross and Daphne Gee would weaken the resolve of this year's team to continue the streak, the Patriots answered this fall by winning their first six matches.
"We're a strong team, and even though we're young, we still have the ability to do what we did last year with Bev and Daphne," said Jen Cichy, one of the Patriots' top hitters. "We can still carry out the winning streak."
Wootton has won the last four Maryland Class AA state championships and has qualified for the state finals the past five years.
This year's team has four returning players: one senior, one junior and two sophomores. The top returner is senior Gretchen Stross, the younger sister of Bev Stross. A third Stross, Barbara, is a sophomore on the team.
Coach Mickey Lipman said this year's players "get better from one week to the next. They are committed to improving their volleyball skills."
It certainly helped that all the players went to volleyball camp in New York this summer. Many team members play almost year-round. Gretchen Stross, for instance, plays with the Capital Volleyball Club.
According to Lipman, the drive to keep the Wootton tradition alive comes from "the enthusiasm of the girls and the game itself. The girls want to play. They see improvement in themselves, so this makes them want to play more."
The Wootton players come early and stay late. They even work out on their own.
"The girls are really into volleyball," said Lipman. "The young players get a lot of responsibility early, so by the time they're juniors or seniors, they know what to do and what is expected of them. They take it seriously."
So seriously that on game days Wootton has a team breakfast. Later this month, the team will make a trip to Bryce Mountain, and a parents' dinner will be held during the season.
The winning streak has created a tradition that carries right down to the Patriots' shoe laces -- literally. Wootton volleyball players have become a unit that thinks and acts alike to the point team members even wear the same type of shoelaces. They take the same stance on the court, and when they make a particularly adept play, they slap the floor at the same time.
"If we weren't having so much fun, we wouldn't be doing this well," Gretchen Stross said.
Before the season, Lipman drew up a list of lofty team goals that would be impossible for most other teams in the state to even consider. They include having an undefeated season (the fifth in a row), winning the Montgomery County Division I title and defending the state crown. Another objective will be to help Stross earn All-Met honors.
"I feel these goals are not a shot in the dark," said Lipman. "The winning streak keeps the girls focused on playing well. This is their purpose."
Lipman said this year's team is a "mixture of players with high level experience. Some have never played in a match before." Two of the team's starters, twin sisters Jenni and Kristin Burdette, didn't play last year.
Still, Lipman said his team is coming together.
"I'm very pleased with the way they are playing right now; they are better than four weeks ago, but we really haven't been tested yet," Lipman said. "We haven't played the stronger teams. The last half of the season is very competitive. We're working toward being our best the last three weeks of the season."
Lipman is primarily worried about two Montgomery County competitors: Rockville and Churchill.
Rockville Coach Paul Bruening has five returning players from last season's 10-4 team. His returning players include All-Met Trang Pham, Lynn Kwock and Debbie Shockley, an All-Met basketball player.
Recent Rockville teams have been to the regionals four times.
Churchill, 13-1 last season, has been to the regionals three times in recent years. The Bulldogs'only loss last fall was to Wootton.
Churchill's returning players include Tina Shih, Melissa Mroczek, Jennifer Coates and Shari Zanoff. The Bulldogs will have depth and experience with four seniors and six juniors.