When Northwestern High School volleyball coach Elzora Thomas looked down her bench on a recent Tuesday evening as the Wildcats played Eleanor Roosevelt, this is all she saw: Northwestern's junior varsity coach (April Brown) and one substitute player (junior Simone Clarke). And Thomas was excited--for Northwestern, that was a crowded bench.

The Wildcats began the season with six varsity players--just enough to put a full team on the floor--and have since added one more player. Thomas is in her fifth year as the Wildcats' coach, and she says that she has never had more than eight players on one of her teams.

"Northwestern has always had problems trying to get girls to play volleyball," Thomas said. "A lot of times, girls tell me, 'I didn't know you had a volleyball team.' "

It turns out Northwestern has a pretty good team--the Wildcats are 11-2 overall and will face Oxon Hill on Monday in the first round of the Maryland 4A South Region playoffs. Northwestern should face Bowie or Eleanor Roosevelt--the only two teams it lost to this year--in the regional semifinals.

The Wildcats have one of the county's top players in 5-foot-10 senior Tassy Rufai, whom Bowie Coach Jeremy Price calls "the best individual hitter in the county, bar none." Rufai's teammates call the explosive jumper and hard hitter " 'UPS,' because she always delivers," Clarke said.

Northwestern has put together a fine season despite a slow start. Thomas missed the first three weeks of preseason practice because she joined the Army Reserves and was at boot camp in Fort Jackson, S.C.

The Wildcats also have had to compete with larger teams. Bowie, the 4A county champion, has 11 varsity and 11 junior varsity players; Eleanor Roosevelt has 10 varsity and 16 junior varsity players. Nearly 50 girls tried out for the Raiders' volleyball teams this fall, Coach Hank Howe said, and that number was down from a high of 70 last year.

"We work hard to get girls out because volleyball is not necessarily the sport of choice," Howe said. "We have to hustle and motivate girls to come out. We hand out probably 600 to 700 fliers in the first weeks of school. Our girls sit outside in their uniforms and encourage people to try out."

Thomas and her players have tried similar approaches at Northwestern, which has an enrollment of 2,200. School announcements encourage students to join the team; the players try to convince their friends to give volleyball a try. Thomas holds open gyms for pick-up volleyball in the spring, so potential players can be introduced to the sport. "Basically, the football team comes," Thomas said. "We play against the football team and have some fun."

"I tell a lot of people, 'Come on, play volleyball,' " Rufai said. "And they say, 'Okay, I'll come.' But then they don't come. So I ask them again, and they say no, or they say yeah, but then don't show up. Why didn't they just say no in the first place? A lot of people say they've got to work or have other things to do."

So the Wildcats carry on the best they can with their small squad. The varsity and junior varsity teams practice together in order to have enough players for drills and scrimmages. Since the skill level between the older and younger players varies widely, Thomas--who plays in several adult volleyball leagues--at times jumps into drills to play against the varsity.

"For the most part, I try to stay back and analyze what's going on," Thomas said. "But the JV players are not powerful enough to give the varsity players an idea of the power behind the spikes they'll see in games. So occasionally I jump in to give them that realistic feeling of being spiked on."

On game days, Thomas worries whether or not she'll have a full varsity team. So far this season there have been a few matches in which only five varsity players were available to play; in those cases, Thomas pulled up a junior varsity player to fill out the lineup.

When Northwestern faced Eleanor Roosevelt last week, the Wildcats had seven varsity players--the most they've had all season. Still, Thomas's players were worn out after falling in a draining match, 15-12, 8-15, 15-13, 13-15, 15-6. Rufai used a wicked jump serve during the first three games against Roosevelt (at one point in the third game, she reeled off four consecutive aces), but eventually grew tired.

"Sometimes people need a break, and all we can do is call a timeout," Rufai said. "But you only get two timeouts per game, so a lot of times you've just got to play. You get tired. [Against Eleanor Roosevelt] I got drained after a while. I just did a regular serve because I couldn't take it anymore."

But there are advantages to having a small team. Thomas doesn't have to worry about substitution patterns. Players don't complain about a lack of playing time. And the players work well with each other, since they practice together.

"We play together all the time--all game, every game," Rufai said. "There's no excuse, because it's just us six."

And in the end, maybe Thomas doesn't mind.

"I'm so used to having such a small team that I don't know what I would do if I had a larger team," Thomas said. "I've just been real blessed to have the players that I do have."

CAPTION: Northwestern girls volleyball coach Elzora Thomas instructs her team during a timeout in five-set loss to Eleanor Roosevelt. Thomas, who competes in several volleyball leagues, occasionally jumps in to practice with her team. In her five years at the school, she said she has never had more than eight players on the roster.

CAPTION: Northwestern has used junior varsity players to fill out its roster, but the Wildcats have played tough. Tassy Rufai, right, rising for spike in recent loss to Eleanor Roosevelt, leads 11-2 team that opens playoffs Monday.