Success started early for Centennial's Kim Emrich, Beth Stradling and Julie Taury.

They were members of the 14-and-under Columbia Volleyball Club team that won the Eastern regional tournament three years ago and advanced to the national championships in San Jose.

Their high school careers have followed a similar path, as the Ellicott City school has won the Maryland 2A championship the past three seasons. Taury graduated this past spring, but Emrich and Stradling have an excellent chance to lead Centennial to its fourth straight title.

"Playing club volleyball helps to build up the confidence level with [your teammates] and gets rid of the rust," said Emrich, a 6-foot outside hitter who plays with a number of her Centennial teammates for Columbia Volleyball Club. "That way we don't have to take the whole high school season to build the confidence and familiarity [with each other] because we already have that."

According to several area coaches, a successful club program has a lot to do with a player's development--and a high school team's season record.

"The club scene is where you get the players ready for the next level," said Orlando Larracuente, who directed Whitman to the Maryland 4A championship last fall.

Cheryl Lord, who has coached at Calvert, Northern and Patuxent, said: "Instead of ending their season in November and not doing anything volleyball-related until the next tryout in August, players are continuing to keep their volleyball skills up and staying in shape [by playing club volleyball]. . . . When you have a player or a whole team that doesn't do anything for the next nine months, you're almost back to ground zero."

Last year, Calvert won the Maryland 3A title, while in Virginia, Chancellor defeated Osbourn Park in the regional semifinals before losing in the state semifinals. It's no coincidence that Whitman, Calvert, Chancellor and Osbourn Park had a strong contingent of club players.

Calvert's entire team played for the Southern Maryland Juniors (SMJs) and Whitman had a pair of 6-foot twins who played year-round for Peak Performance volleyball club. Chancellor's top players played for Richmond Volleyball Club and Osbourn Park had 10 players on the Northern Virginia Volleyball Association team.

The increase in club volleyball has not come without controversy. Although pleased with the results, some coaches fear that specialization in one sport restricts athletes from playing other sports they may enjoy.

"I think club is a good thing for a number of kids," Maret Coach Liz Hall said. "But in general the specialization and the things we are asking kids to do is not producing well-rounded athletes. You learn a little bit from every sport you play and get a better perspective. . . . There is a burnout rate and that is hard to avoid when playing any sport year-round."

All but two players on Osbourn Park's varsity team play club and last season the Manassas school fell one match short of making the Virginia state tournament.

"That's been the key to our success the past few years," Osbourn Park Coach Dan Jones said. "As much as I try and shy away from year-round programs, it has led to our success. . . . It seems that the specialization that usually takes place at the college level is taking place at the high school level."

"A freshman walking into Centennial has at least two years of club experience," said Centennial Coach Michael Bossom, whose varsity team regularly has every player participate in club volleyball. "The players who come and touch a volleyball from August to December are not going to have the same experience and talent level as players who touch a ball from August to June."

Perhaps a good example of what a strong club program can mean to a school's varsity team became evident in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference. Before 1988, Great Mills of Charles County dominated conference play by benefiting from its players participating in the county's club volleyball program. The Hornets had eight straight unbeaten seasons.

This prompted Calvert's Lord to form the SMJs after the 1988 season, which consisted of players from Calvert and Northern. In two years, Lord's program outgrew the Charles County club team and shifted the balance of power in the SMAC.

Northern dethroned Great Mills in 1990 on its way to six straight conference championships and four consecutive state titles from 1994 to '97. Calvert won consecutive conference titles in 1997 and '98, including the 3A championship last season.

Was the formation of Lord's club team responsible for Calvert and Northern's recent success?

"Absolutely. It's a very direct correlation," said Lord, who is now an assistant coach at Patuxent, one of Calvert County's newest high schools. "This is not a casual volleyball program. This is meant to be a competitive program. Our goal is to develop players that can compete."

St. Mary's County formed its own club program three years ago in an effort to compete in the SMAC, Chopticon Coach Steve Correll said.

"It helps them tremendously," said Correll, who is an assistant on one of the St. Mary's County Juniors teams. "Calvert [County schools] are usually head and shoulders above the crowd. But they work hard to get there. For St. Mary's County and Charles County to get there, I think they have to make a commitment about volleyball."

In the District, Wilson Coach Lorn Hill last year formed the D.C. Starlings club team. The program, which is free to all D.C. public school athletes, is funded through fund-raising events. The program provides daily volleyball instructions and there is tournament play once a month from January through May.

Hill's daughter, Genevieve, a senior at Wilson, has been playing club volleyball since age 12. Last season, Hill led Wilson to its second DCIAA title in three years.

"If you don't play six to nine months [a year]," Lorn Hill said, "you don't stand a chance."

TEAMS TO WATCH

The Top Five

These schools may not be among the top 10 teams at the start of the season, but over the years have been among the best little-known programs around. Watch for them to cause teams headaches again this season.

WILSON

The defending D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association champion returns most of its starting lineup, including most valuable player Genevieve Hill. The Tigers also strengthen their lineup with the acquisition of Maya Mapp, a six-foot transfer from Banneker. Hill, who began playing volleyball year-round at age 12, is one of the league's best players. Last season she led the Northwest Washington school to an 8-0 record in league play and a 23-7 overall record. This season, the Tigers play a tough private schools schedule, including No. 10 Sidwell Friends, Maret, Holton-Arms and Madeira. Wilson finished with a .500 record against area private schools last season.

ST. MARY'S RYKEN

The tiny private school in Leonardtown has been competing against larger public schools in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference -- arguably the toughest volleyball conference in the area. But the Knights have answered the challenge in recent years. Last season, St. Mary's Ryken finished in a tie for third place with an 18-3 record. The Knights also captured the first Maryland Independent School State Tournament last season by defeating Washington Catholic Athletic Conference runner-up Elizabeth Seton in the final. Though Ryken graduated four seniors, including honorable mention All-Met players Linda Stefko and Jessica Guy, fifth-year coach Tracey Loewe has a lot of talent returning. Freshman setter Melanie Guy, sophomore setter-hitter Katie Tyner, junior outside hitter Leah Cullins, senior outside hitter Amanda Morgan and senior defensive specialist Natalie Neill are all outstanding athletes.

CHANCELLOR

The Fredericksburg school turned out to be one of the brightest surprises in Virginia last fall, defeating Osbourn Park in the regional tournament and advancing to the AAA state semifinals. This season the Chargers, 22-2 last season, drop to a Group AA classification and will compete in the Battlefield District. Group AA plays a winter volleyball schedule that is generally considered to be less competitive than the fall competition. Chancellor returns starters Dana Jones, a six-foot All-Met senior outside hitter, and 6-2 senior middle hitter Katie Synan, who has unofficially committed to play at Virginia. The Knights added setter A.J. Lewis to their roster, a junior transfer from Iowa.

ROBINSON

The Rams, South Lakes and Falls Church are three of the 14 Northern Region schools adding volleyball as a varsity sport this fall. What makes Robinson a favorite is the interest its volleyball program has generated at the Fairfax school. Tryouts that began in mid-August brought a turnout of roughly 75 players. But with it being Robinson's first season, Coach Tracy Ferguson does not know what to expect once matches begin. "We just want to be competitive this season. I would like to be a program where we leave somebody's gym and they say `Wow, I can't believe Robinson is a first-year program.'"

MODEL

Perhaps the most successful but little-known school in the area is three-time defending National Deaf School champion Model of Northeast Washington. The Eagles finished last season 32-7 and advanced to the final four of the Independent School League tournament. They have not lost to a deaf school opponent in three years and have placed among the top teams the past two years at the annual Model tournament. Their biggest challenge this season will be replacing graduates Rachel Boll and Tamara Suiter, each of whom received awards from national deaf school publications last season. In addition to scheduling a tough area schedule this season, the Eagles will travel to Indianapolis to play in a tournament against deaf schools from across the nation.