Atholton's main gymnasium floor is being refurbished, forcing the volleyball team to practice in the windowless auxiliary gym where hot, stagnant air makes it feel like a sauna. The players have remained patient, though, because they know rebuilding takes time.

The Raiders, who hope the main gym will be ready for their home opener Sept. 20, have spent two years preparing the team they have today. Like the gymnasium floor, they first had to lay a foundation before they could polish it.

The rebuilding of the team began in 2003, when Coach Bruce Lindblad took six athletic sophomores with one year of junior varsity experience and put them on varsity.

Now Atholton has one of the strongest and most experienced squads in a Howard County league that annually produces some of the state's top teams. The starting lineup of outside hitters Robin Burkowske, Nicole Massarelli and Andrea Lamont, middle hitters Stephanie Sharp and Nadia Saleem, and setter Kristen Kozielski gives Atholton a good chance to make its first state tournament appearance in a decade.

"When we started playing together, we just wanted to have a winning record," Sharp said. "We were young, but now we're all grown up, and we know we have the talent to win. We've gone through a lot together and learned."

The biggest lesson came last season. Atholton scored one of the postseason's biggest upsets, defeating defending state champion and then-No. 3 Calvert in the semifinals of the 2A South Region tournament. But two days later, against unranked Reservoir, the Raiders won the first two games of the 2A South Region final, then dropped three straight, finishing their season 11-6.

"We had all the momentum, and then we let it slip away, and it was such a disappointing loss -- no one really said anything on the bus ride home," Kozielski said. "But it was big for us to make it that far, and now we know what it takes, so this year is going to be our year."

What separates the Raiders from the rest of the county is that they don't have one go-to hitter. Kozielski, who dished out 430 assists last year, can set three hitters who each recorded at least 120 kills last fall -- Massarelli (135), Sharp (134) and Lamont (120). That threesome collectively recorded 174 aces. Defensively, Sharp led the county with 180 blocks, with Saleem adding 106 and Burkowske 33.

"The skill level is there because we have girls now who are playing year-round now, and that's not something we had in the past," Lindblad said. "If we can all play together and gel together, then we're going to be very tough. And in this county, you really need some good players to compete."

The growing number of players who compete on year-round travel teams such as the Maryland Juniors and Columbia Volleyball Club have raised the talent level in a county that already has produced 17 state titles in 15 seasons. All of Atholton's starting lineup plays year-round.

"It's gotten to the point that you need to have a bunch of club players to compete in Howard County," Hammond Coach Ken McLaughlin said. "If you don't, then you're going to be in trouble."

At Centennial, which won the 3A title last year, setter Jen Feldmann, outside hitter Allison Cappalaere, and defensive specialists Tehya Mockapetris and Kasey Quinn will help the team contend for its seventh state title in a decade. At Reservoir, returning hitters Leigh Copperthite, Jamie Thomas and Lauren Miller have the Gators thinking about a state title; the team lost to eventual-champion Liberty in the semifinals last fall.

At River Hill, returning hitters Maddie Lee, Jenny Li and Kristin Kotewicz combined for more than 200 kills last year. Glenelg's outside hitter Julie Hollrah and middle hitter Brooke Winterling return to a team looking for its second state title in four years.

"If you look at the county, I don't see there being one player who can dominate a game and just take over because there are so many good players out there," said Centennial Coach Mike Bossom. "The county has been really good at times, like in the mid-1990s when us and Mount Hebron and Glenelg were winning state titles, but this year could be up there."

Atholton starters Nicole Massarelli, front, an outside hitter, and Nadia Saleem, a middle hitter, are part of a promising Raiders team this fall. The squad began rebuilding in 2003 and this year is one of the strongest and most experienced in the county.