Pikesville has been one of the Baltimore area's breakout volleyball teams this fall.
Last year, the Panthers won just two contents, but it's been a different story in 2017. The Panthers have started the season with a nine-match winning streak, having dropped a set in just three of those matches.
Pikesville's most recent win against Owings Mills Oct. 3 marked the first time the team had been pushed to five sets this season.
A contributing factor to the team's surge has been its schedule. The past couple years the Panthers, who compete at the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association's Class 1A level, have had to compete against Baltimore County's larger schools. This season's schedule has been filled with schools closer to Pikesville's size, and the team has thrived as a result.
It hasn't been just the schedule, though. The players have put an added emphasis on being positive this season after communication issues hampered their play last year.
"Everyone obviously wants to win, but at the end of every game we all just want everyone to feel like they played well and feel good about themselves," senior outside hitter Olethia Askew said. "It helps everyone come together. We definitely play better when we're going into the next practice or game feeling positive."
This year's team also features a more experienced roster. Last year's group had just three seasons. This year, the Panthers have 10 seniors with varsity experience.
"We've been with each other since freshman year, so everyone knows one another really well," senior setter Kori Richmond said. "On the court it's all instincts because we trust each other. Our game has flowed a lot better as a result this season."
For head coach Natalie Cryan, having a strong group of captains in Askew, Richmond and junior middle hitter Teylah Saunders has also been key. Pikesville has 15 players on its roster and rotates a lot of girls during games, but the captains usually stay on the floor the longest.
That trio features the team's statistical leaders in most categories. However, the captains' impact goes far beyond the box score.
"They work really well together and help everyone else on the court," Cryan said. "Sometimes we're subbing in players that aren't as experienced, but those three are good about reminding everyone what their roles are. They're all very smart players, but are also good about giving each other support without being pushy, so it's tough for me to take them off the floor."
Cryan hopes the team-first mentality will continue.
During the win streak, the program has received more recognition that it's used to, but the team's temperament has remained the same.
"I'm very fortunate in that our team is really humble," Cryan said. "None of our players ever underestimate our opponents. We might be undefeated at the moment, but if we come in to play a team our players haven't played yet, they'll ask me how good they are because they're still nervous that we won't win. Or if we play a team we've already beaten we remind ourselves that our opponent will be more motivated to win this go-around.
"The goal has always been to work our hardest and grow together as a team. Just because we're on this run right now doesn't change that."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Victoria Lewis