Broadneck volleyball coach Glenn Brainer won't soon forget his season-ending loss to Glen Burnie in last year's Class 4A Region IV title match.
His Bruins trailed, 4-0, when 6-foot-2 hitter Theresa Cornish, then his best player, suffered a chin laceration and left the game permanently.
Yet despite having no player on the court who stood above 5-8, the Bruins overcame deficits of 7-0 and 14-9, with off-speed hitting, cross-court dinks and by matching the taller Gophers power-to-power for a 19-17 victory.
Although Glen Burnie stormed back to win the overall match, 3-1, en route to an 18-0 state championship season, the loss ended the Gophers' unbeaten streak at 45 games and the Bruins proved they could play without their biggest starter.
Cornish will not be returning to Broadneck this year for her senior season -- she and her family moved out of state in late July -- but the Bruins return almost everyone else from last year's 12-3 squad.
"There's more team unity than ever," Brainer said. Last year, Cornish was the only returning player from a squad that had graduated 10 seniors.
Senior setter Nikki St. Claire, Broadneck's top returning player, will quarterback a patient Bruins' counterattack that can dig with the best of them. St. Claire missed two weeks of last season with a shoulder injury -- including the regular-season loss to Severna Park. But she returned for the last few matches and the first-round playoff victory over the Falcons.
She'll get support from senior setter Jen Tozzi and junior hitters Julie Scott and Jen Rapczysnski, each of whom stands 5-foot-9. Junior Andrea Henry and sophomore Julie Barr both are 5-10, and freshman Katie Forthofer is 5-11.
Junior Amy McCellan is a fine defensive player, and Nikki's younger sister, sophomore Chrissie, and another sophomore, Brandy Martin, add depth.
"We've been fortunate never to have an all-senior team, so we've got balance and potential for good teams over the next four years," said Brainer, who enjoyed his best turnout, 35 players. "The girls have been in second place in the region for the past two years, so they're ready to make some kind of move."
But so are several other county teams, includingperennial power Severna Park and perennial contenders Old Mill and Chesapeake.
Confidence will be a big factor for Tim Dunbar's Severna Park team.
The Falcons were 11-0 with a regular-season 87-match winning streak before being downed in three straight games by Glen Burnie.
A subsequent victory over Old Mill was followed by a 3-2 upset loss to Chesapeake in the regular-season finale, as the Falcons failed to win their seventh county title since 1985. The Falcons (12-3), winners of four regional titles since 1985, were eliminated by Broadneck in the first round of the playoffs.
The five returning starters from last year's squad are senior Cassandra Melton (5-7, hitter),juniors Jamie Pirotte (5-7, setter), Kate Marks (5-10, outside hitter) and Catherine Kirk (5-11, middle hitter), and sophomore Jen Conner(5-9, outside hitter).
Conner is recovering from a broken left arm.
"Everyone except (graduate) Kim Aller is back, so we have a lotof depth. That's nine players, but it's like a double-edged sword," Dunbar said. "They were all part of the team that just fell apart, and the key is which team is going to show up. There's a lot of potential on this team, probably more than on any team I've ever coached, but they were badly shaken after last year."
Chesapeake coach Kathy Kubic has been using her Cougars' upset of Severna Park -- their lastgame of 1990 -- as a motivator for this season. So far, it's working.
"We had 60 girls try out for the team. That's more than I've hadhere," said Kubic, in her fourth season. She returns six seniors andthree starters from last year's 8-7 squad. "This team is scrappy -- they go after everything."
The Cougars will be led by senior captain Michelle League, Stacy Ogle and Laura Sutton, each of whom stands 5-8. Junior Joyce Smith, a transfer from Frederick, is a pleasant surprise. She joins seniors Amy Nuenschwander, Kristin Spak and Valerie McBee in the Cougars' 6-2 format.
Old Mill coach Pattie DeMarco isoptimistic despite losing four starters to graduation and a fifth --star senior Jen Schmittle, who is opting to concentrate on a promising softball career instead of playing volleyball.
DeMarco still has the county's tallest front line, with 5-10 senior Ashley Sins, a couple of 6-foot juniors in Anne Chicorelli and Debbie Dawson, and 5-10junior Allison Wentworth.
Glen Burnie took just 45 minutes to dispose of Old Mill's 10-5 squad in the first round of the playoffs lastyear, a fact that will linger with players like Dawson, Chicorelli, Wentworth, Chris Baer and Lee Ann Lezzer, members of the Patriots' state championship basketball team last spring.
Baer, a junior 5-8 hitter/setter, returns for her third varsity season. Back for their second varsity seasons are setter Lezzer and hitter Amy Reusing, also juniors.