The season has reached its midpoint, and the Potomac Falls High School volleyball team is still talking about its potential.

That's because the Panthers have yet to get into a groove, what with flu circulating throughout their lineup and one of the team's top setters out the past year and a half with various injuries.

"It's been through pretty much every player," said Potomac Falls Coach Linda Lachey-Helms, who has had five players come down with the virus.

Still, the Panthers have overcome the early season adversity and were 5-2 entering Friday night's match against Broad Run--with the two losses coming to Loudoun Valley and Park View, the AA Northwestern District's top two teams. Potomac Falls's loss to Loudoun Valley--which has yet to drop a game this season--came after a narrow 17-15 first-game loss.

"We've managed to squeak out some wins even though we're not playing that well," said Lachey-Helms, whose team rallied to beat both Loudoun County (1-4) and Liberty (1-4) in three games earlier this season. "We've had a lot of kids sick and just haven't played with a lot of pep."

That said, Potomac Falls has reason to believe the worst is over. And Elizabeth Duong--a 5-foot-11 junior who missed the majority of last season with a severe ankle sprain and all but one match this season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament--was scheduled to return to the starting lineup Friday evening.

If any positive can be found from the early season adversity, it is that a number of the Panthers' young players have been given sizable playing time at various positions. Lauren McHew has filled in admirably at setter in Duong's absence, and sophomore Brittany Gjormand and junior Kasey Olsen have played in the middle. McHew likely will move to a defensive specialist position, and Gjormand (5-10) and Olsen (5-8) will play their natural outside hitter positions. Sophomore Beth Boomgard has developed into one of the team's top hitters, and junior Lis Bosma has shone as a talented all-around player.

"Some people have gotten to do some things they wouldn't have been able to do otherwise," Lachey-Helms said. "Elizabeth would have normally been playing middle blocker, so [Gjormand and Olsen] are getting some experience there."

Duong's return brings not only a talented setter to help run the Panthers offense but also a tall player to fill a middle blocking position. Duong and Bosma (a 6-0 junior) now will share the setting duties and will play middle blocker on opposite lines--guaranteeing a tall body in the middle at all times. The added height will come in particularly handy the next time the Panthers face Loudoun Valley--which boasts a front line full of tall players.

However, both Duong and Lachey-Helms understand that her return is not guaranteed. Duong has opted to wait until after the season to have the necessary surgery to repair her ACL. Duong attempted to return last Friday against Liberty but had to leave the match early after slightly twisting her knee--which, in turn, sidelined her this past week.

"I'm pretty determined to play," said Duong, who added that she is a little nervous about the prospect of re-injuring herself. "I'm afraid that I might get hurt again and not be able to play."

Duong has found plenty of sympathy and advice while sidelined with the ACL injury. Both Lachey-Helms and senior teammate Shannon Crisp have torn their ACL. Crisp has injured her knee three times, most recently tearing her ACL last spring during softball season; Lachey-Helms suffered the same injury several years ago playing club volleyball.

Crisp said she understands a lot of the disappointments Duong is experiencing.

"It's really frustrating when you see other people running fast and doing other things that you can't do," Crisp said. "I still can't jump so I mainly have to play back row. . . . When [Duong] found out she would have to have surgery, it really upset her. I told her she'll get through it. She's frustrated right now and pretty much down, and she'll try and do something that she is just not ready to do. She needs to relax. . . . She is expecting too much too soon."

For Lachey-Helms, seeing Duong get back out and play after all this time is reward enough.

"I'm excited for Elizabeth, win or lose," Lachey-Helms said. "It's a frustrating injury, and the rehabilitation is no fun. . . . She should come back off this pretty well."

Whether or not Duong is able to return for the full season without another injury, Potomac Falls needs to play more consistently if it hopes to make a run at Loudoun Valley and Park View. With the flu bug hopefully gone for good, it is a realistic goal, Lachey-Helms said.

"Even if she is not in there, if we play well for us we can beat those teams," Lachey-Helms said. "If we don't play well, anyone in this county can probably beat us. The best case scenario is that if [Duong] stays healthy and can play, I think our chances are pretty good."