A challenge is what he wanted and a challenge is what he got.

When John Carroll High School rolled into Pasadena to take on the Chesapeake volleyball team in the season opener last week, Cougars Coach Mike Gimon expected a battle. The match was aimed at preparing his team for the highly competitive Anne Arundel league, where Chesapeake is often mentioned as a sleeper team. The Cougars aren't strangers to beating strong teams: They pulled off one of the biggest upsets of last season, defeating powerhouse Severna Park in five games.

"I wanted a tough team [to start the season]," Gimon said of John Carroll. "If we're going to contend for the county championship, we have to come in ready to go. We can't breeze through any of the [league] games."

The eight-year coach's team was put through a solid test, losing to the Patriots -- who went 9-7 in 2004 -- in four games, 25-10, 16-25, 25-23, 25-15.

The loss didn't seem to burn Gimon or his players too much. Throughout most of the match, the players smiled and joked as if the game were a scrimmage. Afterwards, the coach clarified the mood.

"The more they joke and smile, the better they play," Gimon said. "It's difficult for some people to understand that. They sit in the stands and say, 'How can they laugh at their mistakes?' Because if they don't, they'll make a bigger mistake next time."

Senior middle hitter Stephanie Thompson said one of the strengths of the team is its closeness. She is taking the Carroll loss positively.

"I think it helped us because they did make us hustle, and Broadneck and [the other county teams] are good teams that will make us hustle," Thompson said. "We worked hard. . . . I think we're still going to do really well."

One player who stood out for her hustle during the John Carroll match was senior Amanda Santoni. Santoni practically mopped the dust off the gym floor with her jersey during the match, displaying quickness and heart.

"She's all over that floor," Gimon said before the game. "You couldn't buy a pool tarp as good as she is over the floor."

Santoni and team will have to maintain that effort if they hope to achieve Gimon's goal: to be in the league's top four. Hindering that result could be the injured knee of senior hitter Heather Dodson. Dodson was missed at the John Carroll match, and her return is uncertain.

The Cougars can't heal Dodson's injury, but they can focus on the troubles they had in their opener. One of the biggest problems was coverage of tipped balls -- which allowed John Carroll's front line to score and gain momentum.

"The first thing we said coming off the floor was we need to work on that," Gimon said.

The Cougars opened league play Tuesday against North County, then face Severna Park next Thursday. The difference this year will be that the Falcons will be ready. But that's okay, Gimon said, because his team is different as well.

"Last year part of the problem was that we didn't know how to handle success," Gimon said. "We fell apart after [the Severna Park win]. This year they know how to handle success. They know what to expect of themselves."