When Cheryl Lord took her Huntingtown volleyball team on a preseason trip to Ocean City -- stopping along the way for a tough scrimmage against North Caroline High School -- and then to the New Jersey shore for a workout, she took a minute the first night to talk some business.

Her message to the second-year team was appropriate: Unlike this bonding trip, a repeat of last year's success will be no day at the beach.

"We won't be a new team anymore, and we won't be able to surprise anyone," Lord said. "Those heightened expectations mean that we have to work hard, and my girls came back knowing that they had to earn their spots."

Last year, the Hurricanes' inaugural season included a surprising run to the 3A South Region championship. But Huntingtown lost to Seneca Valley in the state semifinals, meaning there wasn't a state volleyball champion from Calvert for the first time since 1993.

It might not be a coincidence that last season was also the first year the county carried four programs -- Calvert, Huntingtown, Northern and Patuxent. While the area is still rich in volleyball talent, that talent is now more spread out. Lack of depth has become the biggest challenge for coaches.

"With kids moving around [from school to school], it's hard to tell how it will affect things," said Lord, who has coached at all four county high schools. "It probably had the biggest impact on Calvert."

After winning a state championship in 2003, Calvert High dominated the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference last year before a disappointing loss to Atholton in the Maryland 2A South Region semifinals.

Cavaliers Coach David Redden noted that while he did have one starter who transferred to Huntingtown last year, he's now feeling the effects of a junior varsity program that was gutted by transfers. Still, Calvert returns a strong lineup, led by senior middle hitter Whitney Johnson, and could once again compete for the 2A state title.

"Do I think the county has enough talent to sustain the quality of our teams?" Redden said. "I think so. But I think that the girls that want to play and play [on club teams] are out there playing. I don't think we have players sitting at home saying, 'I wish I had a chance to play.' "

The other two Calvert County teams, Northern and Patuxent, each won one game in the their regional tournaments before bowing out in the Class 3A South and 4A East, respectively. Both are poised to challenge for the league title.

As for Huntingtown, the Hurricanes are working hard to avoid a sophomore jinx.

"I'd have to say that we have an unusually cohesive group considering they came from different schools," said Lord, whose team remains young this year. The Hurricanes will have two seniors in Alex Sita and Nikki Agambar.

"I think they all came back very excited about playing."

As for the rest of the SMAC, the jury is still out as to how much the opening of Huntingtown last year has closed the gap between Calvert County and the rest of the league.

Westlake Coach Jim Johnson said offseason programs such as the Southern Maryland Juniors have kept the Calvert teams a step ahead.

"I'll never believe that they're out of reach," Johnson said. "But until we get girls that play as much in the offseason -- to Pennsylvania and Virginia to play -- it's tough. My kids all straight away play other sports when the season ends, while they [Calvert County players] just play a lot of volleyball."

Johnson's strategy has been to load his team with the school's best athletes. The Wolverines are led by returning captain Kellie Clark as well as Ashley Royster and Barrett Johnson, who both saw playing time last year.

"Basically, we're labeled as athletic and aggressive, and we want to come in with an attitude -- all those 'A' words," Johnson said. "That's the way we need to play."

Other top teams include Thomas Stone and a senior-heavy Leonardtown team that will be a threat after beating Northern last year and taking Calvert to four games.

Middle hitter Whitney Johnson, left, returns for Calvert High, which hopes to again challenge for the 2A state title.