Ashley Royster asked the right questions when she started her high school volleyball career two years ago at Westlake.
She knew about the disparity between the Calvert County schools, which have produced a state champion every year since 1994, and the rest of the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference.
"With Calvert County schools, you hear how they won so much," Royster said, "and you wonder how they do it."
Quickly, Royster learned about her Calvert peers' participation in the Southern Maryland Juniors program, the oldest and one of the best in the state.
Never mind the long trek she made three times a week from her Waldorf home to the volleyball courts in Calvert County or the participation costs. She wanted to play in college and, more immediately, help Westlake challenge some of its eastern neighbors.
Royster, however, never wondered why she is among a small number of volleyball players outside Calvert County who venture across the Patuxent River to try out and play for SMJ. Although she made one of its teams the past two years, she did not this season. She plans to try again next year.
Still, Royster said, for teams in Charles and St. Mary's counties to catch up to the Calvert schools' success, their players need to train at that level.
"I don't lie," she said. "I say [to my Westlake teammates] that they're real good, and that's what motivates" them.
SMJ co-founder and director Cheryl Lord, who also coaches at Huntingtown, said she distributes fliers at all SMAC schools and pursues players from outside Calvert County. She said there is at least one player on each of the program's six to eight teams each year. Most players outside Calvert come from Charles, although former Chopticon All-Extra Candice Rose, now a senior at Jacksonville, played for SMJ, as does the occasional player from Prince George's or Anne Arundel.
"A lot of people presume it's a Calvert County program and if you don't live there you can't get in, and that's wrong," Lord said. "We always invite Charles County kids to try out. We need coaches to encourage them."
Thomas Stone Coach Tim Chase, who coached with SMJ from 1997 to 1999 and previously led the College of Southern Maryland program, has three players this year playing with SMJ -- senior Kandace Pickeral and sophomores Chantel Hebron and Samantha Baden.
Chase said eliminating the fear factor is one of the biggest obstacles in getting players from any Charles County school to participate in SMJ. Most players know that Calvert County schools dominate the SMAC. Non-Calvert County players believe their Calvert opponents are playing for all the regional and state titles and do not believe they belong on the same court as those players.
"Unless you've got someone telling you that you're good enough to play there, nobody will look into it," Chase said. During high school season, "you lose, you lose and you always lose. They think they can't compete over there. My players come back [from playing with SMJ] and say: 'They're not these great and mighty players from Calvert County. They were my teammates.'
"When you can have a few kids play with them and share that experience with their [high school] teammates, it's a tremendous benefit. It's tough because Charles County is a softball county. It's not a volleyball county."
Lord said some coaches feel threatened by sending their players to learn from rival coaches, a move that could be used against them during high school season. Lackey junior Cari Brezina played for SMJ's 15-and-under team last year, which advanced to a national tournament in Florida. Chargers Coach Jen Brough was thrilled that Brezina had that experience.
"I'm not apprehensive at all. If it improves them and gives them an upper hand, I'm all for that," Brough said. Brezina's Lackey teammates "look at her and know she's improved because of that. What she brings back is experience with other coaches."
Pickeral said the 45-minute drives each way to practice three times each week take "100 percent dedication" from players. She also said players need to believe in themselves and not get intimidated at tryouts.
"It was kind of discouraging at first because the Calvert County players, they look at you as an outsider," said Pickeral, who is in her second season with SMJ. "But after tryouts, they don't look at you that way anymore. They see that you can play."