Yesterday morning - just two days before his team was to enter the most crucial part of its schedule -- Broadneck volleyball coach Glenn Brainer received the bad news.
As Brainer's unbeaten Bruins (8-0 overall, 5-0 against the league) defeated the homestanding Annapolis Panthers, 15-5, 4-15, 15-5, 15-6, in a 4A league contest Tuesday, junior Nikki St. Clair -- the top server with 20 aces -- suffered a severe shoulder sprain that will force her to miss the next two weeks.
"She dove on the floor after a ball and jammed her shoulder in the third game and she still finished the game," said Brainer, who is in his third season. "She still ran off 11 points in a row serving."
The 5-foot-8 St. Clair also registered 10 aces, including five in a row.
"She showed the intensity and the desire to win that this whole team has," he said.
Brainer's Bruins will need all the intensity they can muster over the next two weeks as they play the final five games of the regular season, including their toughest challengers so far.
Tomorrow, Broadneck, which starts just two seniors, plays host to seven-time defending county champion Severna Park (9-0, 3-0). Next week, the Bruins go on the road against Glen Burnie (9-0, 5-0) Tuesday and Old Mill (7-2, 3-1) Thursday.
"We're going to have to look at some new strategies for the next day or two," said Brainer. "It's a little disheartening (losing St. Clair) because we have only two days for re-evaluation, but hopefully the girls will rise to the occasion."
With 6-foot-2 junior middle/outside hitter Theresa Cornish (62 kills, 27 blocks, eight service aces) leading the way, the Bruins are a talented team.
Junior Jen Tossi, who usually plays a reserve role behind St. Clair, is the team's third-best server with 12 aces and is a solid defensive player.
Tossi along with senior Joyce Jones may be called on to fill the void left by St. Clair.
The regular starters include senior setter Crystal Adams and senior hitter Kathy Johanek (nine kills), each of whom stands 5-7, and sophomore hitter Julie Scott. Scott is the team's second-best hitter with 21 kills and the third-best server with 14 aces.
Broadneck has depth in the front row with senior Talaya Williams, a 5-10 hitter with 10 kills, and sophomore's Andrea Henry (5-11, four kills) and Jen Raypczenski (5-8, three kills).
"We've have a good substitution system and most of the girls have played in a lot of games this year," said Brainer. "They've been able to just step right in because they've gotten experience."
The fact that Brainer's teams have remained competitive over the last three seasons is remarkable.
When Brainer arrived at Broadneck three seasons ago, the Bruins were coming off a successful season in which they reached the playoffs, but the entire starting rotation had graduated.
Still, Brainer coached his inexperienced squad to a respectable 9-6 season. The Bruins improved to 12-3 last year. Brainer attributes his success to the winning attitude the team inherited and the winning tradition of his past.
"The winning chemistry was already in the atmosphere," said Brainer, who previously had coached a championship team at Baltimore's Southern High.
His three years at Southern included a 42-3 overall record, three division championships and a city-wide title.
From Southern, Brainer went to Arundel where he gradually built the program until his team posted a 12-3 record in his last season and reached the playoffs.
Tom Cole, Brainer's assistant coach at Arundel, joined him at Broadneck last year. The two coaches share similar coaching philosophies.
"He has the junior varsity playing the same system -- bump, set and spike -- that we play on varsity," says Brainer. "They're nailing down the fundamentals, and I'd have to say that's good for our future."
Despite its unbeaten record and its position atop the Class 4A Region IV standings in front of Glen Burnie, Severna Park and Old Mill, respectively, Brainer said his Bruins have not faced as big a challenge as the next two weeks will offer.
With the exception of Chesapeake (5-5), all of the Bruins' victories have come against teams with sub-.500 records.
That will change tomorrow afternoon when the Bruins take on Severna Park, a team that defeated them, 3-0, in their match last season and held the Bruins to eight points or fewer in all three games.
The Falcons bring an 85-game regular-season winning streak into tomorrow's match along with a powerful, balanced corps of front-line players in senior Kim Aller (5-10, 47 kills), sophomores Kate Marks (5-10, 42) and Catherine Kirk (5-11, 40) and junior Cassandra Melton (5-7, 32).
Aller is serving at 85 percent (the percentage of serves that go over the net) with 27 aces and sophomore setter Jaime Pirotte (5-7) is even better with a 92 percent average and 19 aces.
Pirotte is also leading in assists (passes that lead to kills for points or side-outs) with 120. Sophomore Jen Conner (5-9) has 24 aces.
Like Broadneck, Severna Park struggled in its last outing against Meade, winning 15-6, 16-14, 7-15, 12-15, 15-8.
"With this monster that's been created (the Falcons' winning streak), every team that we play is going to be up for playing us. The kids know that we have to concentrate on every game," said Coach Tim Dunbar, in his seventh season. "But due to our inexperience, the girls might have been looking past Meade.
"If we continue to play like we can, we'll be competitive and be a strong team for the next few years."