Calvert and Northern--two Calvert County schools that have combined to win every Southern Maryland Athletic Conference volleyball title this decade--each enter the 1999 season with questions lingering over their potential title runs. Can Calvert win without Amanda Ayres and Kim Payne, their top two hitters last season who have since graduated? Can Northern get past Calvert without one truly dominant hitter?

No questions, however, involve the teams' starting setters.

No. 2 Northern has senior Tera Blevins and No. 4 Calvert has senior Laura Fowler--and in each case, their coach is happy about it.

"Tera will need to lead on the court," Northern Coach Beth Incrocci said of Blevins, who has started for Northern the past two seasons. "We won't have one standout [hitter]. It will be a balanced offense. . . . It will be up to Tera to distribute the ball."

Said Dave Redden, Calvert's first-year coach: "We need somebody who is going to take over the team as a quarterback and, having a year's experience now, I think Laura will be able to do it. Going out and winning a state championship last season, it gives her that extra boost of confidence."

Though Blevins and Fowler find themselves in similar positions now, their styles of play and the paths they have traveled to get to this point are quite different.

Blevins said she has known she would be a setter since the sixth grade and has worked endlessly over the past six seasons to perfect her craft. She plays with a quiet, calm confidence that comes from year-round tuning of her skills. And though she understands the facets of her position as well as any player, she'll be the last to tell you of its importance.

"I don't see my role as big at all," Blevins said. Northern's success "depends on the passers and depends on the hitters. I don't have that big a part. If the team gives me good passes, then I can get a good set on the ball and that gives the [hitters] a good chance [to spike it]. . . . I'm just the little distributor guy."

Fowler first set a volleyball in the ninth grade and became a starter before last season began, when a teammate was injured. She stayed on court through the state final, in which Calvert won its first Maryland 3A championship.

While Blevins is calm on the court, Fowler can be quite the opposite. She plays with an all-or-nothing attitude that sends her diving after every ball within reach.

"I feel--not to sound conceited--that everyone has to look up to me to be the elder on the team," said Fowler, one of only two returning starters for Calvert this season. "Kim and Amanda were really good leaders, and everyone looked up to them on the court. That is what I feel I have to do."

The importance of these two players has not gone without notice.

"They are both tremendous parts of [their teams' success]," said Patuxent assistant coach Cheryl Lord, who has coached both players in an offseason club program. "Tera is a seasoned, experienced setter. . . . She has a lot of finesse and can set every set you need.

"The biggest difference between Tera and Laura is Tera is more polished, but I think Laura Fowler has more athleticism and brings a lot of energy to the court. . . . She's not big. She's not flashy. But I think she is a huge part of the success that team has had, because she is such a team player."

Last season, Calvert defeated Northern in the regional final to earn a trip to the state title. The season before that, Northern handed Calvert its only loss of the season in the first round of the regional tournament.

This year, SMAC coaches agree that Northern and Calvert again are the teams to beat.

"Hopefully, we can work real hard and win the SMAC title," Blevins said. "But that is only one piece of the pie. It's nothing if you just win the SMAC. I mean, it's a tough conference, but you have to have goals. Ours is to win the state title."

CAPTION: Calvert setter Laura Fowler celebrates after the Cavaliers beat Northern last year to win the 3A East Region title, en route to a state championship.

CAPTION: Northern's Tera Blevins, shown during practice, has trained as a setter for six years. "Tera will need to lead on the court," said her coach, Beth Incrocci.