How the Teams Stack Up

THE CONTENDERS

Calvert: The Cavaliers graduated four of six starters from last year's state championship team, but they're still talented enough to be considered a favorite for the SMAC title. Six-foot-two junior middle hitter Rachel Leitch is Calvert's top offensive threat. The Cavaliers also have top defensive specialist April Shields.

Northern: The Patriots won seven consecutive SMAC titles from 1990 to 1996 and return a lot of talent in 1999. They'll field a starting lineup full of upperclassmen. Seniors Tera Blevins and Katie Radford should be among the best setter-hitter pairs in the Washington area.

Patuxent: In their third season of varsity volleyball, the Panthers have earned a spot among the SMAC's top teams. Talented returners include senior middle hitter Sara Shisler, junior setter Julie Powell and outside hitter Laura Shaw.

McDonough: First-year coach Morris Davis takes over a team that finished tied for third in the SMAC but graduated five starters. The Rams' returners are young and talented, including sophomore setter Jessica Lusk.

UP-AND-COMING TEAMS

Chopticon: The Braves started three sophomores at the end of last season and finished 8-10. Watch for Candace Rose, a 5-11 outside hitter who led the team in kills as a junior last season.

Leonardtown: The Raiders return the bulk of a team that went 5-7 in the SMAC while dealing with injuries. Leonardtown returns just one senior to the starting lineup. Junior setter-outside hitter Meagan Schutty should lead the team.

Westlake: Westlake returns six senior starters, none taller than 6-0. The Wolverines' top players include setter Melinda Huseman and defensive specialists Stacey Herrin, Jeni Cox and Stephanie Cummings.

REBUILDING PROGRAMS

Great Mills: The Hornets return six senior starters, but may still lack the size and experience to compete with the conference's top teams. Senior setter-outside hitter Tasha Brice is a top returner.

La Plata: The Warriors return a core of seniors and bring in first-year coach Misty Weber. Players to watch for La Plata include senior setters-outside hitters Caitlyn Ford and Tera Payne.

St. Mary's Ryken: The Leonardtown private school tied for third in the SMAC before winning the first Maryland Independent School Tournament title last season. But Ryken will field a team of underclassmen. Freshman setter Melanie Guy will be one of the team's best players.

Thomas Stone: Coach Linda Curry said most of her team's rebuilding after a 4-11 season involves attitude. So far, she said, her players seem excited to play. The Cougars return four starters and should be led by seniors Rachel Evans (middle hitter), Erin Waltersdorff (outside hitter) and Renee Bruffy (outside hitter).

Players to Watch

MH Rachel Leitch, Calvert: With last year's All-Met Player of the Year, Amanda Ayres, now at the University of Maryland, Leitch should account for a good portion of the Cavaliers' offense. The 6-foot-2 junior played her best in last season's state tournament, tallying 10 kills and nine blocks in the championship match.

OH Katie Radford and S Tera Blevins, Northern: The duo should form the best hitter-setter combination in the conference. Both play year-round volleyball and have worked their way up through Northern's system together. Radford, a 6-foot senior, was second on the team in kills last year to first-team All-Met Sarah Haynes, who graduated in the spring.

MH Sara Shisler, Patuxent: By last season's end, Shisler had become one of the most powerful middle hitters in the SMAC and led Patuxent in kills. With another year of experience, Shisler, a senior, should form a nice hitter-setter combination with junior Julie Powell.

DS April Shields, Calvert: The 5-1 defensive specialist is often overlooked on the court but is likely the steadiest back-row player in the conference. The senior can be counted on to dive after every ball within reach.

OH Candace Rose, Chopticon: The 5-11 junior led Chopticon in kills last year as Chopticon went 6-8 with a young lineup. Rose has great leaping ability and should continue to improve.

CAPTION: Patuxent's Sara Shisler, right, tries to block a spike last season from an unidentified Northern player.

CAPTION: Teams at a Glance (This chart was not available)