Volleyball notebook: ‘Scrappy’ Damascus rounding into playoff form; Forest Park ready for a run

By Jacob Bogage and Eric Goldwein

Isabel Nelligan is Damascus’s lone senior, and as such, the only player remaining from the Swarmin’ Hornets’ 2013 Maryland 3A state championship team.

Teammates have cycled in and out of the lineup and the group’s identity has transformed from big and powerful to small and scrappy since her freshman season. But through all the changes, the winning and the “family feel” has remained a constant, she said.

That was the case last season, when the Swarmin’ Hornets (11-3) fell one set short in the state final, and it has remained so this fall.

“The fact that everyone’s willing to put all their effort onto the court is definitely the same,” Nelligan said.

A 5-foot-6 outside hitter, Nelligan’s versatility has been integral to the success of the undersized group. With its tallest player, Olivia Fagan, standing at 5-10, Damascus has reinvented itself as a team that outlasts opponents rather than powering through them.

Damascus’s survival skills were on display in Friday’s five-set loss against No. 4 Northwest. During one play, the ball was about to hit the ground near the net before junior libero Sarah Bowers came flying out of nowhere and one-armed it back over.

“We don’t have the big blockers anymore,” sophomore middle blocker Sara Gruber said. “Anything that comes over the net, mostly likely will be picked up.”

Despite the result, the loss against the defending 4A state champion Jaguars has served as a confidence-booster for Damascus as the postseason approaches. The Swarmin’ Hornets have a strong record against a competitive schedule — including a three-set win over Sherwoodin September — but the Northwest match felt different, junior Sarah Noland said.

“I saw a side of the team I’ve never seen before,” Noland said. “We were really scrappy and we played really well as a team.”

After Thursday’s regular-season finale at Blake, the Swarmin’ Hornets embark on a playoff journey that they hope continues all the way to the the University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum.

“The whole team just needs to keep playing together,” Nelligan said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of that this year, and as long as we continue to trust each other on the court, then we have a good a chance of going all the way.”

The Big number: 829

Assists this season for Middleburg Academy sophomore setter Lillian Vargo. Middleburg has played an area-high 38 matches this year, and Vargo has an assist in all of them.

Player of the week

OH. Sarah Lawler, O’Connell, Sr.

Lawler had 54 kills over three matches in the past week for O’Connell, including a game-high 29 Tuesday night against Bishop Ireton.

Forest Park readies for playoff run

Forest Park is built for the postseason, Coach Anna Davila said. She didn’t set out to craft her team that way, but the pieces just came together for a year-end run.

The Bruins (17-7, 4-0 Virginia Conference 4) are riding a nine-game winning streak, including a conference tournament sweep against Freedom-Woodbridge on Tuesday, that’s lasted more than a month.

“We’ve gotten really strong here at the end of the season,” Davila said. “A lot of girls are peaking at the right time.”

It’s starting with the defensive improvement of Forest Park’s setters, senior Madelyn Murphy and sophomore Morgan Gibbs. The pair quarterbacks the Bruins’ balanced offense — four players have at least 80 kills on the season — but has also made defense a priority.

“Defense is first no matter what your position is,” Davila said. “If there’s no dig, there’s no ball to be set.”

And the setters are second and third on the team in digs. Gibbs has 94. Murphy has 93. That’s the key, Davila said, to the Bruins’ ultra-balanced approach. They don’t have a star athlete to lead them round after round in the playoffs. They have a bunch of solid players who can turn good defensive plays into sound offensive possessions.

“Here there are more kids participating, more kids who get to play the game and enjoy the game,” Davila said. “It’s truly a team game.”

That’s not the easiest style of play to master right away, she said, and it let to the Bruins’ rough start to the season and losses to MadisonPatriotBattlefield and Chantilly.

But midway through the year, the team hit its stride, she said. Players set a goal to finish the year with seven straight wins and claim the conference tournament’s top seed. Mission accomplished.

Their next goal: win the tournament title, then survive and advance through the region and state.

Forest Park hosts Woodbridge in the Conference 4 semifinals Thursday.

The Post Top 10

Langley takes over the top spot on the heels of a four-set victory Tuesday at rival Madison. . . . Northwest rebounded from its loss to Sherwood with a five-set win against Damascus on Friday. . . . Middleburg Academy hasn’t lost since Oct. 8. . . . Flint Hill swept Episcopal on Tuesday. . . . O’Connell beat Bishop Ireton in five sets and is undefeated in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. . . . South River swept Severna Park on Tuesday and is undefeated against Anne Arundel County teams.

1.  Langley (20-1) Last week: 2

2.  Loudoun County (21-1) LW: 3

3.  Briar Woods (16-1) LW: 4

4.  Northwest (13-1) LW: 1

5.  Middleburg Academy (35-3) LW: 5

6.  O’Connell (29-2) LW: 6

7.  Flint Hill (21-3) LW: 7

8.  Northern (16-1) LW: 8

9.  Oakton (20-4) LW: 9

10.  South River (17-1) LW: NR

Dropped out: No. 10 Chantilly (12-3)

On the bubble: Osbourn Park (16-4), Huntingtown (13-2), Holy Cross(24-4), Chantilly

Records through Tuesday.

*Note: This is the final week of rankings until the completion of the postseason.



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