It's tempting to forecast the 1991 high school volleyball championship race as a two-team affair involving last year's titans, Mount Hebron and Centennial.
Hebron shook off a midseason blowout by Centennial, then put together an 11-game winning streak. The run included a rematch victory over Centennial for the county championship, then culminated with the Class 2A state title.
The Vikings lost two key players to graduation in hitter Andrea Day and setter/Player of the Year Melissa Murdza, but are well-equipped to defend their titles.
Centennial saw its 32-game winning streak -- dating to 1988 -- snapped by Glenelg. Soon after that run ended,Hebron denied Centennial the defense of its county title. North Carroll (Carroll County) then derailed the Eagles' state title defense inthe regional playoffs.
The Eagles may have finished on a disappointing note, but don't interpret that as a sign of weakness for the coming season. The program is as stable as ever, and Centennial returnsanother cast of skilled, versatile, experienced players who are poised to regain the glory of two years past.
The Vikings and Eagles clearly look like the class of the county. But that's not to say otherteams -- Atholton, Oakland Mills and Howard, chief among them -- won't push the league's twin towers on any given night.
Atholton, Oakland Mills and Howard formed the heart of a competitive second division last year, and each team returns a nucleus of talent that should keep them in the county title and playoff hunts.
Still, Hebron and Centennial have set the standard the rest of the league will chase.
"We should be up there with the big boys by the end of the season, but right now it (the favorite) has got to be those two (Hebron and Centennial)," says Atholton coach Jon Peterson.
Hebron is coming off the best season in school history, a 19-1 ride that had only one blemish -- a three-game, midseason blowout at Centennial. The Vikings then won their next 12 matches.
Replacing Melissa Murdza, who averaged 20 assists as the league's premier setter, is a top priority.
Second-year coach Jeannine McCrumb has three capable setters to fill the two-setter role required in her new 4-2 offense. Erin O'Donnell, a 5-foot-6 senior, 5-7 junior Kai Scott return, and KellyQuinn, a 5-5freshman with club volleyball experience, has caught McCrumb's eye.
"(Quinn) is better skill-wise than anyone I've had," McCrumb says."I'm very excited about her."
Quinn, however, won't be flashing her skills in the near future. She is trying to overcome a nagging back injury and may not play for several weeks.
Once the Vikings get their setter positions settled, they should be very tough. The strongnucleus of 5-9 seniors Tracy Porter, Brooke Christopher and Jen Dohler will make sure of that. Porter, the league's best passer and maybeits best player, led the team with four passing points per game. Shecan also block and play defense with the league's best. Christopher and Dohler each averaged a point block and combined for 10 kills per game.
Hebron also is in good shape in the service area.
Dohler had a 92 percent success rate and averaged two aces per match last year. Scott has the league's most devastating serve. More than a third of Scott's serves went for aces last year, and if she adds a few percentage points to last year's 87 percent average, the Vikings could beunstoppable.
"I'm afraid of us peaking too early, but they reallywant to repeat (as state champs)," McCrumb says. "They want to be a better volleyball team. I feel like I have a solid group of kids."
Centennial coach Bill Shook certainly can make the same claim, as the Eagles return seven players from last year's 14-4 team that lost inthe regional finals to North Carroll.
The Eagles peaked early. They tore through the first half of the season undefeated, then lost three of their last seven regular-season matches to finish two games behind Hebron.
"We lacked discipline. We forgot what it felt like tolose," Shook said. "They got that taste, and they definitely didn't like it."
The Eagles don't figure to taste defeat much this year.
They return seven players, six of whom either started or saw considerable playing time.
Although hitter/backcourt specialist Jenn Hermann is the team's lone senior, the Eagles have another strong blendof height, skills and experience, and should benefit from the promotion of several stars from last year's undefeated junior varsity.
They probably have more depth than anyone in the county.
Like Hebron, the key to Centennial's progress will be the development of its setters. Now that Sang Kim has graduated, junior returnee Sezin Omer (5-7) and sophomore newcomer Carrie Shadrick will share the position. Both are also exceptional servers.