The Arundel volleyball team enters 2017 with much-less uncertainty than last year.
At the start of the 2016 season, Arundel was a young and untested group that had slumped to an 8-9 record the year before. The Wildcats quickly put that behind them, though, and emerged as one of Anne Arundel County's best squads, finishing the regular season with a 12-3 overall record.
Arundel stayed hot in the postseason, beating traditional power Severna Park to win its section. In the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association 4A East regional final, the Widcats beat South River, a team that had beaten Arundel twice during the regular season, in five sets to claim the championship.
"So many people stepped up in the regional championship, everyone was just so involved," senior setter Alicia Eldredge said. "It was magical the way it played out. It's definitely something everyone on that team will always remember."
Arundel's dream season ended the following game in the state semifinals in heartbreaking fashion. The Wildcats lost a wild, back-and-forth contest with Montgomery County's Sherwood, 3-2, dropping the final set, 15-13. The loss gave Arundel a 15-4 final record.
How last season ended has been on the minds of this year's team -- which returns all but three players -- throughout the offseason.
"Being so close to the state championship has really fueled the fire for us," senior outside hitter Taylor Wigglesworth said. "When we wake up early for summer workouts, that's what motivates us to put in our best. Arundel has had teams that have gotten to states, but we've never pushed through and won the championship. That's the fire for us this year -- to push all the way through."
That extra motivation, as well as the large number of returners headlined by six seniors, has many observers believing Arundel will be among the Baltimore area's best teams this season.
Head coach Ashley Yuscavage, who has coached Arundel to four regional titles in her 11 seasons at the head of the program, has high hopes for this season. She believes her group should be solid in every phase of the game, with the team's serving and overall depth on offense being its greatest strengths.
A key for Arundel will be the play of Eldredge, who had an outstanding 2016 season, finishing with 334 assists, 116 kills and 191 digs.
"Alicia is an exceptionally hard worker who is really technically sound and knows how to use her hitters effectively -- that's been really big for us," Yuscavage said. "Her decision-making process has raised our level, and I'm excited to see her continue to make everyone around her that much better."
Yuscavage said she plans to have the team more mentally prepared to play in tough atmospheres.
The team's inexperience in that environment was evident against Sherwood in the state semifinal, a stage of the tournament no player on her roster had ever participated in. To Yuscavage, a big factor in the Wildcats' loss was the team being unable to stay loose mentally in the most crucial parts of that final set, which led to physical mistakes.
Yuscavage said she plans to better prepare her team for those situations by using team-building activities, which build trust and communication skills. The Wildcats will take part in writing exercises that'll focus on their thought process on the court and how they hope to connect as a team. Yuscavage hopes these activities will bring more confidence and camaraderie to the group.
To her players, there's no coach they'd rather have trying to get them to take their next step.
"Coach Yuscavage knows your potential and what you're capable of, so she's not afraid to push you to your limit," junior middle hitter Mackenzie Meehan said. "It's the most comforting thing to know that you might not always see just how good you can become, but your coach always sees it and genuinely wants you to get there."
How far the team is able to go this season remains to be seen. Anne Arundel County and the MPSSAA 4A East region are once again expected to be competitive, with South River, Severna Park and Broadneck all seen as potential top teams. Despite how difficult the competition figures to be, the Wildcats are confident they'll be in the mix for championships.
"Having these many players coming back who are as strong as they are makes the start of the season even more exciting than usual," Yuscavage said. "It's fun thinking about all the cool things we're going to be able to do that not every team gets the chance to."
Photo Credit: Wick Eisenberg/PressBox