While most Americans were preparing for a weekend of
fireworks, Susan Wren spent six days last week dazzling audiences in California with her own display of volleyball skills.
She burned some rivals with solid passing, or with her serving, which was also on target. And her blistering kills were better than ever.
"Our team was at full force, and I felt I had a very good tournament," said Wren, who helped Howard County's 16-and-under Columbia Lightning to a 64th-place finish among 256 teams in the June 28-July 4 Nike Volleyball Festival in Davis.
A 16-year-old who enters her junior year at Severna Park this fall, Wren had little trouble shaking the rust after a fractured left wrist injury forced her to wear a cast for three weeks and hampered her effectiveness for three more.
"This was my first tournament back," said the 5-foot-8 setter, who transferred from Birmingham, Ala., in March. "I was both pleased and surprised at the level I was able to play up to."
While Wren assisted the Lightning, two more Severna Park High volleyballers -- second-team All-County selections Kate Marks and Jaime Pirotte -- helped push the Capitol Volleyball Club's 18 Red team to a 102nd-place finish among more than 200 teams in the 18-and-under category.
Coached by Tim Dunbar, who last fall led Severna Park to the Class 4A state title with a state-best 19-0 record, the Red Team ended the six-day event with a 6-7 record, splitting victories with Idaho's state champion in the process.
"Wins and losses weren't the whole story," said Dunbar, chosen Coach of the Year last fall by both the Anne Arundel County Sun and The Baltimore Sun. "We went out there to get good competition, have fun and learn."
But the team's patience was tested before it even stepped onto the court.
A flight delay left Dunbar and the girls stranded for two hours in a Los Angeles airport. And once in Davis, there was a 90-minute wait before a rental car was available.
"We didn't get in until midnight," said Dunbar, whose Red Team was slated to play at 8 a.m. that Sunday.
His fatigued Red Team dropped a narrow decision to Metro Plex, a squad out of Fort Worth, Texas, over whom the Red Team owned a victory from a previous tournament. Capitol then went 1-1 against its next two opponents, defeating Tacoma, Wash., before losing to a San Diego adversary.
On Monday, the Red Team went 1-1, dropping its overall record to 2-3 and knocking it into the lower echelon of teams.
The locals had opened that second day with crucial setback to Minnesota's Mosquito Coast, losing the deciding game, 15-13, to a squad that finished 39th among the top tier squads.
"We came into the tournament seeded only 98th, so I guess we ended up finishing near where we were supposed to," Dunbar said. "But I feel we could have beaten Mosquito Coast, and if we have done that, there was no way we would have finished any lower than 64th."
The lingering disappointment affected the Red Team's play on the third day. It went 1-2, beating a North Carolina squad and losing to Golden Bear (Berkley, Calif.) and Hawaii. The locals dropped a 17-16 decision to Hawaii in the deciding game.
"That was an off day for us," said Dunbar, whose club was 2-0 on Wednesday and 1-2 Friday. "If we had played as well as we had the day before, we wouldn't have lost to either of those two teams."
Marks, a 5-10 senior, echoed her coach's sentiments.
"I thought we could have done better. We lost a couple of games that were very close," said Marks, 17, who had 79 kills at Severna Park, including four with three blocks in the state title victory over Northern.
"This summer has made me tougher, mentally and physically," she said. "My hitting has become a little more consistent and I've learned to take the edge off of my serve instead of pressuring the ball, trying to ace every time."
Pirotte, 17, was the Falcons' leader with more than 450 assists and 50 aces last year, including 17-for-18 serving in the state title game.
"I think my mental game has improved, talking to the players, setting them up," Pirotte said. "We were a little disappointed because we wanted to prove we were as good as some of the West Coast teams."
Dunbar added, "My kids were playing to get exposure and to enjoy themselves, and I think they did that. There were a lot of college coaches coming to me, asking about them. I was very pleased for the kids."
Dunbar no doubt will be pleased next fall when Wren joins an already formidable cast of Falcons' players, including Pirotte, Marks, first-team All-Metro and All-County selection Catherine Kirk and first-team All-County pick Jen Conner.
Wren was born in Ohio and spent eight years in the state of Washington before her family moved to Birmingham, where she attended Telham High School.
Playing in the round-robin format, Wren led the Panthers to a 53-17 match-play record and a fourth-place finish in the state tournament. She settled in Severna Park when the family decided to moved again.
"My dad checked it out," said Wren. "He went and watched Severna Park play in the state playoffs, and talked to Coach Dunbar afterward."
Dunbar said, "Susan's very athletic, so that translates into versatility on the volleyball court. "I'm sure she'll be very beneficial to us at Severna Park."
With the lineups already decided for the Capitol Volleyball Club, Wren opted for the Lightning, which consists primarily of players from Centennial High's 18-0 state champion squad.
"We had to forfeit our last few games on the final day because our airplane tickets were for the morning and the games were in the afternoon," she said. "Otherwise, we could have finished 56th. But we played well as a team."