After Maryvale Prep’s perfect volleyball season a year ago, coach Missy Little wanted to challenge her team with something new.

In what Little calls “a miracle season,” the Lions won every set last fall en route to a 17-0 record, the final No. 1 ranking and the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship. They opened this season by sweeping three matches, but setting a goal to win every set — a rare feat at any level of the sport — was simply unrealistic.

So Little looked outside the Lions’ comfort zone, outside their conference.

“I want people to see that this program has grown and that we don’t want to back down,” said Little, in her 11th season as Maryvale’s head coach.

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She didn’t just wade into the non-conference pool, she dove into the deep end, adding two defending state champions, No. 1 Arundel and No. 2 Reservoir, as well as perennial contenders No. 4 Broadneck and No. 10 Severna Park. The Lions also played in the Mason-Dixon Invitational at Westminster earlier this month against more teams they had never played before.

With those additions and No. 9 Archbishop Spalding, their toughest A Conference rival, the Lions now have one of the strongest schedules in the area.

“I know we’ve got a target on our backs. I get that,” Little said, “but I want people to see that this is a legitimate program. We may be a small school compared to some of these others, but we’ve taken pride in what we’ve developed over the past 12 years and I just feel it needs to be recognized by others. Not to mention that it’s going to make my players better. It’s giving them a challenge and making them hit it head on and not back down.”

Although it took a while to get her program on the winning track, Little took the volleyball program at the Brooklandville Catholic school from IAAM B Conference champion to A Conference champion in five seasons (COVID-19 canceled the 2020 season).

“She just slowly, each year, improved,” said Terri Moeser, Maryvale’s athletic director. “Now, these girls play club and if you watch [Little] on the bench, when the girls do something good, she’s up and jumping and she’s like hitting the assistant coach she’s so excited. She has a passion for it. She loves the sport. She loves these kids.”

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Last season’s VSN Volleyball Coach of the Year, Little said she wanted to develop a team of players who worked hard but also had fun and were invested in each other the way she was invested in them.

“It was really about creating a culture of belonging and that these girls can do anything if they put their mind to it,” Little said. “The more that I put my trust and my belief in them, the more they started believing in themselves and we just kind of went from there. The girls kept coming in more committed, more dedicated. They would do more in the off season, play club. They were getting to be more serious about it and it just perpetuated into what it is today.”

The Maryvale players welcomed the additions to their schedule. As club players, they knew the stellar reputations of those teams.

“I was really excited, because I wanted a higher level of competition,” said senior libero Athena Savick, “and I feel like our team plays better against higher competition, because it’s faster play… and we’re going to get better.”

Last week, then-No. 4 Maryvale suffered its first loss since 2019, falling to then-No. 12 Severna Park in five sets and tumbling to No. 11 in this week’s VSN/Baltimore Banner Top 15. Earlier in the month, the Lions defeated Westminster in pool play at the Mason-Dixon Invitational, but they lost two sets to No. 7 Bel Air and fell in three sets, 16-14 in the third, to a strong North Hagerstown squad.

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Senior outside hitter Libby Potter hates to lose, but she said it’s worth the risk to go for the big wins.

“It was a humbling experience,” Potter said of the loss to Severna Park, “but, of course, it’s a learning experience and we’re going to take it as it is and use that as motivation in our game against Broadneck this week.”

Savick said the Lions have to mine a loss for its benefits.

“It was a tough loss, but as much as it hurt, I feel like we needed that,” she said. “Last year, we won every set and we didn’t get that feeling of a loss and I feel like losses make us stronger as a team. They make us work harder and it’s also good to think back on, ‘Oh, remember that loss? Let’s do better than that.’”

Libby Potter (left) and Athena Savick, the only two seniors on No. 11 Maryvale's volleyball team, were excited to learn about the new teams the Lions would play this year. They dropped a five-set match to No. 10 Severna Park last week and although they hate to lose, both seniors said it would help them better prepare for the other top teams on their schedule as well as the IAAM A Conference tournament.

That’s exactly what Little wants to hear.

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After the loss, the coach said, the players got together to discuss all of the reasons they lost from physical mistakes to mental mistakes as well as a few emotional distractions including the recent death of a player’s grandfather and resignation from school of another of the team’s biggest supporters.

“It’s interesting to hear them talk about how they’re going to pull themselves out of a rut,” Little said. “They talked about how when one person gets down, it tends to bring the rest of the team down and how can they help one person get out of a slump and move on together as a team. There was a lot of good feedback and it was a real bonding experience for them.”

The Lions play their first match since the loss when they host Broadneck, a Class 4A state finalist three years ago, Wednesday at 6 p.m. They play defending Class 3A state champion Reservoir on Oct. 14 and two-time defending Class 4A state champ Arundel, on Oct. 24, both on the road.

Arundel coach Ashley Yuscavage said she was happy to add the Lions to her schedule, noting the competition will help her team too.

“We have a really hard time finding teams that want to play us,” Yuscavage said, “so she asked and we had room in our schedule and I had heard they were good. I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to play the toughest teams you can to be ready for playoffs.”

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