Centennial hitter Tehya Mockapetris has always played bigger than her height. But it wasn't until this season that the 5-foot-3 senior with the nearly 30-inch vertical leap raised her game to the level of leader.
Mockapetris' clutch play and consistent power helped the Eagles defend their Class 3A state volleyball title with a win in Saturday's championship game against Huntingtown of Charles County. Centennial dropped the first game, but won the next three.
But the signs that Mockapetris had become a leader came earlier this season.
There were two exceptional efforts against River Hill and Glenelg last month that brought her attention. Before that, there was a defining moment against Mount Hebron.
Greeted by a packed, raucous crowd armed with drums and foghorns, the defending Class 3A state champions found themselves in an unfamiliar situation, down two games to none.
"She said, `I want the ball,' started us on our comeback and delivered," coach Jerry Hulla said. "That was the metamorphosis when the butterfly emerged from the cocoon."
And then she took flight. On Oct. 16 against River Hill, the Eagles had dropped the first game and found themselves matched up against a motivated Hawks team.
"We knew that we were going into one of the toughest weeks of our season; we were really nervous, and they came out ready," Mockapetris said. "I started to get more pumped up as the match went along, and my coach told me to ask for the ball. Everything just started clicking, I got some really good sets and just put them away."
In the second game, she had nine kills and three aces in a 25-23 win. Centennial took the next two games and walked away with the match in four games. Mockapetris finished with 18 kills.
A few days later, against rival Glenelg, the defending class 2A state champion, the Eagles were trailing most of the first game. Mockapetris began to assert her will, and her teammates followed. She got to the service line and used her jump serve, which produced two aces. She collected seven kills, leading Centennial back for a 25-23 win and an eventual three-game sweep.
Overall, she finished with 30 kills, 10 digs and nine aces in the two games against River Hill and Glenelg as the No. 1-ranked Eagles ran their record to 11-0. She was named girls Athlete of the Week by The Sun.
"Tehya works very hard, is extremely coachable, takes feedback and she wants to be the best," Hulla said. "She does everything very well on the volleyball court, is an all-around player who can serve and play defense, and she's always looking to get better."
Her determination has been strong throughout her senior season.
"She's really worked on techniques and made the mental adjustments that have made her much more difficult to defend," Hulla said. "Last year, she'd come at you with one speed, whereas this year, she'll attack the line, use tips, rolls and has a better approach with the timing and spacing of the game. She utilizes her vision, sees where the holes are in the defense and has become better at the mental chess."
The athleticism has been evident since she was young.
As a 3-year-old, Mockapetris began taking gymnastics lessons. Starting with floor exercises, she advanced to the bars and the balance beam. When she was 8, the power in her legs allowed her to soar through the air during vault exercises, which became her favorite.
She didn't realize that her jumping ability was unusual until she began watching film of her volleyball matches.
"I didn't think I was jumping high because I thought that was how everybody jumped," Mockapetris said. "I never realized it until I saw that in pictures and videos, I was just as high as the girls that were 5-10."
As a freshman, she got called up from the junior varsity to train with the varsity during the Eagles' postseason run. Centennial eventually lost in the state semifinals, but the experience proved invaluable.
"I was thrilled, excited and nervous," Mockapetris said. "Training with them made me more competitive, because if you don't play with the best, you won't become the best."
During her sophomore season, she played defense for an outstanding Centennial squad that lost only four games en route to the state title. She studied All-Metro hitters Alana Eller and Margo Phelan, incorporating their approach to the game into her own.
"They were my role models, and watching them helped me progress as I made the transition from defense to outside hitting," Mockapetris said.
In last year's run to the state championship, she elevated her game in the state semifinals and finals against North Carroll and Huntingtown, converting 31 of her hit balls into 16 kills. She added three aces and four digs and did not commit a hitting error.
Mockapetris blends in with the action on the court until she receives a set at the net. When she jumps, rising above the taller players, her leaping ability erases any perceived disadvantage caused by her size.
"When she hits the ball over taller people, she's not so invisible anymore," Hulla said.