Atholton High School volleyball coach Jon Peterson sat in his science classroom Wednesday afternoon while his players brought the season to its official end.
The atmosphere was upbeat. Peterson joked with his players while they returned uniforms and decided what type of team jacket to order. They seemed to have brushed aside their season's sour ending a day earlier, when rival Mount Hebron overpowered the Raiders in three games to advance to the Class 2A state title game (past the Howard County Sun deadline against North East, Cecil County) yesterday at Catonsville Community College.
Obviously disappointed that Atholton didn't get a chance to win an unprecedented third consecutive state title, Peterson wasn't surprised the Raiders' ride ended Tuesday in the 2A state semifinals. Hebron beat Atholton soundly three times this year en route to a 17-1 record.
Peterson's thoughts drifted to more positive things, like where the Raiders were as a team two months ago and how far they had progressed since then.
"There are about 200 schools in the state of Maryland that start playing on August 15, and we were one of the few that had the opportunity to play in the state playoffs," he said. "Everybody has so much to be proud of.
Everybody's skills improved so much since August. Everybody worked so hard."
In assessing Atholton's 12-6 season -- which featured an 8-3 record after the regular season's midpoint and culminated with a thrilling comeback against Watkins Mill (Montgomery County) to win the Region I championship earlier this month -- one can't discount the transition this year represented for the Raiders.
For the first time in several years, Atholton came into the season with more question marks than proven parts.
With only one player over 5-foot-7 -- 5-11 newcomer Kelly Smith -- the Raiders lacked height. With only one returning starter from last year's state championship team, they lacked experience. With only two year-round players in seniors Amy Shellenberger and Marney Treese, they lacked skills and depth.
"We didn't have the skills, we didn't have the confidence, we didn't even know all the positions," Peterson said. "Those are three big factors against you."
Shellenberger remembered feeling doubts when she sized up the Raiders last spring.
Shellenberger, a hitter/setter who started for much of last year, has shared in the best of times at Atholton. As a member of the Sherry Orlosky-led Raiders last fall, she was part of the team's second consecutive state championship.
Knowing Orlosky and fellow stars Meghan Treese and Dodie Carper were about to graduate and a host of new players would be charting Atholton's course, Shellenberger faced a different scenario as a senior.
"Marney (Treese) and I were both kind of apprehensive about this year," she added. "We both play on the Junior Olympics team. We're used to a high level of play. With only four returning players, and only the two of us year-round players, we were kind of scared that some team members wouldn't take the team seriously."
The season started sluggishly. In their second match, the Raiders struggled badly to beat Howard in four games, serving at a pitiful 71 percent success rate. Then they lost three matches in a row The Raiders wound up the first round with a mediocre 4-3 record, but showed signs of taking shape. Players like Mary Bolduc, Teri Griffin, Julie Rupprecht and Smith were improving. The team was performing more as a cohesive unit. They were serving, passing and communicating better. They were offsetting their lack of height with tenacious hustle.
"We had to learn to be scrappy," said Shellenberger.
The hard work paid big dividends in the season's second half. Atholton beat Wilde Lake, Hammond and Howard before putting together its best match of the season in its rematch with Glenelg. In a whipping that took little more than an hour, the Raiders sent the Gladiators home with a 15-1, 10-15, 15-2, 15-8 win.
Three nights later, the Raiders had their most heartbreaking night. They led Centennial 2-1, and held a 13-10 lead in game four, before the Eagles rallied to 15-13 victories in game four and five. Their second four-game loss to Hebron followed four nights later.
The Raiders then rebounded for the playoffs, beating Glenelg again in four games, before earning, as Peterson put it, "the most rewarding victory in all my years of coaching here" against Watkins Mill. Atholton did it in classic comeback fashion, rallying from a 2-1 deficit to win the regional title.
Hebron ended the Raiders' dream swiftly four nights later, handing Hebron its first three-game loss, leaving Peterson little room to speculate. "Let's face it, they're a better team," he said. "We just don't have that firepower. They were the one team all year that made us look short, which we are."
How did Atholton come seemingly out of nowhere to get within a match of the state championship game? Shellenberger (eight assists and 5.2 kills per game, 89.5 percent service success) and Treese (9.3 kills, 3.4 aces) were big reasons.
Without their formerly unknown players, though, the Raiders would have been watching the playoffs. Players like Smith (9.6 kills, 7 assists, 2 aces, 91.7 service success), Bolduc (96 percent service, 4.3 kills), Griffin (team-high 25 point blocks) and Rupprecht (91 percent service).
"My athletic director (Don Van Deusen) came up to me today and said 'I know you're not feeling that great today, but you've got a lot to be proud of,'" Peterson said. "You over-achieved.'"