It's frustrating enough for Northern volleyball coach Linda Curry when she characterizes her team's play as "roller coaster." It's worse when the Patriots are the ones at the controls.

Northern showed the many heights and depths of its ability in a three-game loss Tuesday night at top-ranked Calvert, 25-10, 27-25, 25-13. The team has loads of talent but does not display it when playing top opponents such as the Cavaliers.

There were instances when the young Patriots -- who have only three returning players from last year's Maryland 3A South Region runner-up team -- rolled off a couple of points and immediately felt invigorated. They played with confidence, hit the ball assertively and had the defending 3A champion team on its toes.

Then there were times when Calvert got hot, and you only had to look at the Northern side of the court to tell the story. The Patriots were hesitant when the ball came their way, and they slumped around between points.

"We've tried to work on that. We know it's a problem," said sophomore setter Amy Schreiber, one of the three returnees. "If we see one person get down, then everyone gets down."

Senior middle hitter Sarah Padgett said there is no rhyme or reason to it. "Our confidence comes and goes like I don't even know," she said.

Schreiber said she and her teammates have trouble putting their mistakes behind them. It rarely hinges on an opponent's play, although Calvert was able to seize control at times with some of junior Whitney Johnson's 14 kills.

Instead, the sagging confidence comes from an errant bump, a serve into the net or just a hit off the side of the hand.

"And you do it twice in a row, and then we really get down," Schreiber said.

Curry added: "Unforced errors are killing us. Usually teams don't beat us. We beat ourselves."

The sporadic play was not just limited to this match. Northern struggled with its confidence in its season-opening loss to Bowie but was much more consistent in its last match, a four-game victory over Patuxent. Even more impressive, the Patriots rebounded after losing the first game of that match.

On Tuesday, Northern seemed to be on that track against Calvert. After losing the first game, the Patriots took control of the second, thanks to strong serving by Schreiber and junior Tiffany Sanders and solid net play by junior Julie McGaughran. They had leads of 9-6 and 15-9.

But after a couple of simple mistakes and some powerful play from Calvert's Kristina Shannon and Johnson, Northern was back on its heels. The Patriots weren't attacking Calvert's serves, and they lost control of the game.

"We try to keep teams down," Calvert Coach David Redden said. "When you see them down, you go after them."

Curry said she knows her young players just need game experience, and once the postseason hits, the Patriots will have the confidence to match their abilities.

"For them, it's just routine," Curry said. "We just have to let them play, and it'll be fine."

Northern High's Sara Padgett looks for a block in Tuesday's three-game loss to defending champion Calvert.