Atholton volleyball head coach Rob Moy keeps telling his players not to read too much into their own press.
The Raiders are receiving a lot of attention entering this season after flying under the radar last year on their way to a dream season that climaxed with them winning the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association 3A state championship.
Atholton is the only volleyball team from the Baltimore area entering this season as a defending state champion.
"I guess I'm a little worried about complacency, but I think the players realize that this is not the same team we had last year," Moy said. "We graduated two big pieces in Sam Miller and Hope Kelly, so we're looking at everyone to step in and raise the bar of their play. I think our girls are ready to do that."
Despite losing Miller and Kelly, there's a lot more certainty surrounding Atholton's volleyball team than at this time in 2016.
Last year, Moy was looking at a season in which there wasn't much depth on his team. Atholton had nine players on its roster, while most teams have 12 or more.
The Raiders (15-4) excelled, though, finishing third in Howard County play during the regular season. In the playoffs, Atholton faced Mount Hebron, which won the Howard County title, in the MPSSAA 3A East regional final. It turned into a match that Moy called the most intense he's ever been a part of.
The fourth set itself was a saga, which Mount Hebron won, 34-32, to tie the match at 2-2, before Atholton won the final set, 15-12, to secure the program's first regional crown since 1996.
"We'd been there before with Mount Hebron and didn't come through, so this time we really wanted to push from the beginning to get a lead," junior outside hitter Lisa Zoch said. "We put the fourth set behind us, and there was a real sense of needing to focus all our energy on getting those final 15 points."
Atholton cruised past Towson in straight sets to win the semifinal. In the state championship against Damascus, the Raiders dropped the first set before regrouping to take the next three.
"We started with just trying to bang the ball, but then we realized they're a superb defensive team," Moy said. "They kept digging everything, so we had to start moving the ball around, stop hitting as hard as we could and start thinking about where we were placing the ball."
The victory gave Howard County its first volleyball state champion since 2008. It was Atholton's first state title since 1989.
The Raiders' quest to repeat as state champions is boosted by having more depth. Moy expects to have 13 girls on the roster, with a significant amount of the new players coming up from JV. A sophomore transfer from Alabama, middle hitter Chanelle Smith, is expected to make an impact, as is the group's lone freshman, outside hitter Ryan Rorls.
The team's height also is encouraging to Moy. Atholton will have four girls who are taller than 6-foot and three that are close to it.
"We have a lot of big hitters who can kill the ball and block it," senior middle hitter Kelly Simons said. "Middle, right side, outside, we have a lot of size. That'll be one of our strengths."
Finding a way to replace Kelly, the team's setter from last year, is definitely a priority. The team was in the same spot last season; the Raiders didn't have a setter, so Kelly switched from libero to take over the setter duties and had a standout season.
Juniors Sabrina Lagomarsino and Hannah Duncan will get the first shots at it.
"We're running a 6-2 this year and I think we can do it," Moy said. "The two setters played really well on JV last year. It's a higher level for them now, so what we have to do is give them good passes. If we do that, we'll be fine."
As the Raiders enter the season with a target on their backs and more attention, Moy hopes the team can remain as mentally tough as last year's group. If that happens, the Raiders should have another outstanding year.
"I think we could go all the way again," junior libero Elise Park said. "We've got a long way to go, but at the rate we're going, if we keep working hard, it's definitely possible."
Photo Credit: Wick Eisenberg/PressBox