Loudoun Valley junior Blair Brown walked into a Texas gym in July and stopped short. She stared, stunned, at the view of the U.S. youth national volleyball team she was about to join.
"I've never played with girls that were all . . . well, let's just say I was short on that team," Brown said, laughing.
Short -- for a 6-f00t-4, 16-year-old girl -- does not come easy. Certainly, it does not come often.
Brown has towered above her friends and teammates for years. And, truth be told, she was just starting to get really comfortable with the idea of being, as Vikings Coach Laird Johnson said, "the biggest girl on the block."
"Her freshman year, in private moments when we talked, she was very conscious of her height," Johnson said. "But by the end of last season, you could really start to see that wasn't the case anymore. She realized she has been blessed with something very unique, and she began to really take advantage of it."
And then this -- relegated to the role of average.
"There were three or four girls on the team that were at least 6-5," Brown said. "We had this one outside hitter who was only 6-1, and she looked tiny out there. It was crazy."
Brown, the 2003 Dulles District player of the year and an all-Region II pick, was the lone selection from a group of more than 300 girls who tried out for the national team in Baltimore. She and 17 other girls chosen in similar tryouts nationwide were then huddled together in Texas to train for three weeks. Twelve of the players, Brown included, were then selected to represent the United States in an international competition in Puerto Rico.
The U.S. team defeated others from Puerto Rico, Guatemala and Mexico to earn a gold medal in the qualifier for next year's world championships.
"It was amazing," Brown said. "Different from anything I've ever experienced before. I wouldn't say that I'm shy, but I walked into that gym just a girl from Purcellville. I had to learn how to adjust personally and athletically to new people and new things."
The lessons learned -- namely the need to be quicker as a middle blocker -- are ones Brown hopes to carry over to this high school season, where the Vikings start as the Washington area's eighth-ranked team. Last season, Brown, in her first year playing the entire rotation, totaled 354 kills, including eight matches with 20 or more, and 73 blocks. She also averaged 4.1 service points and 1.9 digs per game.
This year, playing with a greater sense of confidence and desire, she's searching for more.
"From what I saw in club ball, she's made huge strides," said Stone Bridge Coach Jill Raschiatore. "I'm anxious to see her play at the high school level now. She's playing with more confidence. She didn't have that 'I'm young and new' look on her face that you'd sometimes see before. She's definitely in control now on the court, and it shows."
Johnson said the key for Brown will be staying aggressive in the Vikings' new 6-2 offense instead of showing the tendency she sometimes did last season for more finesse.
"Athletically she's always been able to handle her size," Johnson said. "She's always hit well and had a good vertical leap. But now she's really grown into herself emotionally, too. And with that I've tried to explain to her that we need her to say aggressive. Even if she mis-hits a ball, she needs to hit it hard."
Because although Johnson has never tried to measure the speed at which a ball travels off Brown's powerful swing, there's one thing he -- and Loudoun Valley opponents -- know all too well. If she gets hold of one, it's awfully hard to handle.
"I don't know how fast it flies," Johnson said. "But I know it stings when it hits you."