Rising to new heights


A day after losing to North Carroll on Oct. 25, the captains of the Winters Mill volleyball team called an emergency team meeting.

As the players filed into their locker room at the school, they came face to face with a large SpongeBob SquarePants pinata designed to look like an Owl, the mascot of their opponent that evening, Westminster.

"We just beat it and beat it until it was destroyed," said senior Megan Reed, an outside hitter and one of the team captains who came up with the idea for the piM-qata.

It was a moment of catharsis and team bonding rolled into one. "Afterwards, on the bus, on the way over to Westminster, everyone was just so pumped up," said Jessica Wilmer, a junior setter.

The Falcons carried that energy into their match with Westminster, winning in four sets and bolstering their record to 10-2. It was the first time Winters Mill had ever beaten Westminster.

Judging by Winters Mill's proficiency that day, it's hard to believe that it's the same team that finished with a 4-10 record last year. Now the Falcons have broken into The Sun's rankings as the No. 14 team in the area.

"Last year was kind of a transition year," second-year head coach Shelly Katzef said. "Sometimes it takes a year to get the players to believe in the program."

The reasons for the turnaround - from a winning percentage of .286 to .833 - are closer bonds between teammates, good coaching, experience and hard work, according to the players.

"We do everything together," Wilmer said. "We go to dances, go to football games, hang out together, go to dinner together. People know at school: Where there's one volleyball player, there's going to be two or three others."

The close friendships carry over onto the court and translate into synergy during competition, said senior libero Caitlin Metzger, a team captain along with Reed and Jenn Schaeffer.

"Last year, just about everyone on the team was a first- or second-year player," Metzger said. "We have more experience now. We're playing together better. Everything is clicking."

But the biggest factor is Katzef and her dedication to the team's success, the players said.

Last summer, Katzef started a club volleyball team called Spike-Hers and asked the girls to play year-round at camps and tournaments.

Despite having never coached or played volleyball prior to last season, Katzef has immersed herself in the sport, learning its nuances from coaching clinics and college games. During breaks in games, her meticulous attention to details is apparent as she demonstrates technique to her athletes.

"It was kind of overwhelming at first," Katzef said of coaching volleyball. "I continue to try to learn from college coaches and go to games. No matter if you're a beginning player or an expert, there is always something else you can learn."

The players have been eager to go along with the offseason training she recommends, Katzef said. "I asked for a lot and they've come through," she said.

Winters Mill athletic director Bill Rumbaugh said the team's experience, both from in-season and offseason training, has combined with the players' natural athleticism to produce results.

"Volleyball isn't a sport you can pick up by playing a few games at a family picnic," he said. "They've got a lot of great athletes on that team. I think their experience and understanding of the sport is finally catching up to their athletic ability."

Last year Winters Mill was in contention during most of the team's 10 losses, but it couldn't pull out the wins. "We just needed to learn how to finish," Katzef said.

This year, to stress that point, the coach made shirts for the team that read: "Finish Strong."

That's just one of her motivational techniques. Katzef also writes the players a poem designed to spur them to action before every game.

Before the Falcons' win over Middletown on Oct. 6, Katzef's closing line in the poem read: "Go out Falcons, put down your foot from the start. Blow the Knights away, show we have heart."

The players said her dedication doesn't go unnoticed.

"She's done so much for us," Wilmer said. "She has made us turn the corner. She has made us into the team that we are."

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