Few sports can match the excitement and electricity of a tightly contested volleyball match and when it comes to the 2022 high school volleyball season in the Baltimore area, no one matched the performances of 2022 Baltimore Banner/VSN Volleyball Player and Coach of the Year.

Despite playing for Hammond High School, a team that did not have the same depth of talent as of some of the area’s top programs, Hampton dominated individually and demonstrated raw skill and athleticism the elevated her above everyone else in the metro area.

At Liberty, Sheri Hagen led a Lions squad the produced a perfect 20-0 season, which included a Carroll County championship and the Class 2A state championship.

Here are their stories:

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Hammond's Safi Hamption, the 2022 Baltimore Banner/VSN Volleyball Player of the Year (VSN Staff)

Player of the Year

Safi Hampton, Hammond High School

Safi Hampton once hit a volleyball so hard during Hammond warmups that it slammed off the floor and hit the rim of the basketball hoop not far from the ceiling.

That kind of power is just the beginning of the 6-foot-1 outside hitter’s volleyball prowess.

Hampton was the only player from Maryland named a first-team high school All-American this fall by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. She has signed with North Carolina.

Playing on a Hammond team that didn’t have the depth of club-veteran support many of the Baltimore area’s other top players enjoyed did not diminish Hampton’s spark. She did all she could to lead the Golden Bears to an 8-8 season, playing in the highly competitive Howard County league. Five losses came against Top 15 teams.

She led the Bears in every offensive category, including 209 kills, 3.9 kills per set and 41 aces. She also led them with 40 blocks and 165 digs.

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“Every point that they score basically comes through her,” Centennial coach Mike Bossom said. “She’s the best passer on the team, the best blocker, the best hitter, one of the best servers. On any other team, she would start and it would be no question she’s the Player of the Year. If she’s on our team, we win states and she’s Player of the Year. If she’s on Reservoir, they win states and she’s Player of the Year. If she’s on Glenelg, they win states and she’s Player of the Year. All the teams have the other pieces, but no one has a player like her.”

Hampton can jump touch 10-feet-8 and Reservoir coach Carole Ferrante said, “She gets in the air and can just fly.

“There’s something about the way that she moves that she can get from one side of the court to the other in three or four steps and she just has this tremendous ability to get up. She’s just a very dynamic, strong player. She’s fun to watch,” Ferrante added.

Hammond coach Anne Corey agreed that the way Hampton moves around the court is unique. Her volleyball IQ has as much to do with that as her physical assets.

“It’s her ability to read the game and to be able see where the ball’s going to go before anybody else does,” Corey said. “Then she’s able to do anything with the ball. She has that volleyball touch that you can’t coach necessarily. No matter where the set is, she’s able to get some hand on it or she’s able to pick up that passing deep corner because she’s got such long limbs. She reads it and then she gets there. It’s incredible to watch her analyze the game. She’s almost two steps ahead of everybody around her.”

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Hampton first excelled at soccer, playing for the Olympic Development Program, but at 12, she decided to try volleyball at Columbia Volleyball Academy. It was love at first sight. Tall and lean with long arms, she felt volleyball would be a better fit for her physically and she loved the culture of the sport.

“I stuck with it because of the fact that I had so much potential to be good and it was just fun. I played soccer for a long time and it just stopped being fun and I just enjoyed volleyball so much. It’s still fun. It’s hard still, but that’s probably why I’m sticking to it and it’s something I want to do for as long as I possibly can,” said Hampton, who hopes to play overseas after her college volleyball career ends.

At 14, she moved to the Metro Volleyball Club of DC and last summer, her Metro 17 travel team finished 19th in the USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championship Open Division, the top division at nationals.

As much as she loves high-level club play, Hampton also loves playing with her Hammond team. She was an All-Howard County first-team selection her freshman and junior years and almost certainly will be this year. She sat out the COVID-shortened spring 2021 season and finished her three-year career with 531 kills, an average of 3.4 per set.

Even though Corey said Hampton is “one of the most powerful hitters I’ve seen in Howard County in my 10 years,” the coach has been most impressed with Hampton’s emergence over the years as a leader.

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Hampton admitted that role wasn’t always easy for her, especially when she was better than the seniors as a freshmen, but she grew into the role and now sees it as even more important than her individual accomplishments.

Her season highlight is all about a teammate. She explained that setter Marissa Coss was called for several doubles in a row during one game and she started doubting herself, but Hampton kept encouraging her.

“I was like, ‘You can do it. You know you can,’ and she sent me two good balls in a row. They were just perfect and I pointed at her and I was like, ‘Those points are because of you.’

“I get to swing and as an outside, kind of unfairly, I get to make the play look pretty and end it like it’s all me, but it’s really not. I can’t do it without the set… It just represented the teamwork. I’m able to push people to do more than they think they can do and I think that’s really awesome.”

Liberty's Sheri Hagen, the 2022 Baltimore Banner/VSN Volleyball Coach of the Year. (VSN Staff)

Coach of the Year

Sheri Hagen, Liberty High School

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Before volleyball season began in September, Liberty coach Sheri Hagen thought her veteran Lions had an excellent chance to win their first state championship since 2008. After they swept Westminster in their sixth match, she knew they could.

“We totally dominated them,” said Hagen of the five-time defending Carroll County champion Owls. “Our defense had been the one spot that wasn’t as good and our defense was phenomenal at that Westminster game. I still actually think that was the best we played the whole year and after that, everybody knew it could happen… and they wanted it.”

The Lions went on to finish 20-0 and win the Class 2A state championship. They won the Carroll County title, ending Westminster’s five-year reign. They dropped only one set in winning the Oakdale Tournament and dropped just six sets in best-of-five matches.

Middletown, the team they beat 3-1 in the state final, won three sets from the Lions in two matches. In their regular-season meeting, Liberty’s only five-set match of the season, the Lions fell behind 0-2 before rallying to win. The Knights tied the title match, 1-1, but the Lions fought off every challenge after that.

Hagen, in her second year as varsity head coach at her alma mater, said the difference between last year’s 12-4 season and this fall’s undefeated season wasn’t all about improving the physical game.

“I think the mentality was different,” Hagen said. “I think last year the team thought they could do things, but they weren’t confident. When we had to go play at Westminster or at Century in their gym, in their environment, I just don’t think the girls had the ability to tune all of that out and focus on what’s going on right now… They were afraid of losing instead of being confident that they could win.”

This fall, the Lions returned six starters and they exuded confidence from the start. They swept Century twice and lost just one set in two matches against Westminster.

Senior right-side hitter Jenna Liska said the Lions knew Hagen expected a lot of them, but that she also supported each girl as a player and as a person, making it easier to meet those expectations. The Lions swept their first 10 opponents, but Hagen never pressured them to win every set or even, every match.

“She made it clear to us that she would not be disappointed in a loss or two during the season,” said Liska. “She knew we could go undefeated, but she wouldn’t be disappointed in us if we didn’t. She knows it’s a learning curve for the players and she was always calm and that helped us stay calm which helped us achieve our goal of a state championship.”

In the state final, seniors Sarah Hunt and Paige Coulson combined for 40 kills in the match. Junior Grace Maerten dished out 46 assists. Of seven seniors, Hunt (Messiah) and Coulson (UMass Boston) are the only two planning to play volleyball in college.

Hagen, who graduated from Liberty in 1999, was a defensive specialist but she did not play at West Virginia. She never thought about coaching until her daughter Lily played volleyball at Liberty in 2017.

“I had a phenomenal experience playing volleyball in high school,” Hagen said. “I’m still good friends with a lot of those women, really good friends, and I played on a team very similar to what I just coached. I wanted these girls to be close, because that was an experience I had. My daughter’s experience was very different… so I reached out to the coaches and was like, ‘Hey, can I get involved? I played,’ and they were probably thinking, ‘We hear this from every parent.’”

But Hagen was serious.

She hadn’t played competitively in more than 20 years, so she took a coaches’ training course with Gold Medal Squared, a top-level national program. She also started reading and learning all she could on her own.

“I just felt that it was really necessary and I just wanted to help at Liberty and do more of the culture coaching,” said Hagen, who took over the Lions’ junior varsity in 2018 and coached for a few years with the Frederick Volleyball Club.

Coaching volleyball has a lot in common with her career. At the Department of Defense, Hagen works in leadership development and does executive coaching. However, she said she prefers working with her volleyball players, especially the younger ones who are ready to soak up everything she can teach them.

She also gives a lot of credit to her assistant coaches Tim Coulson, who played college volleyball, and Ben Gossard. Both had daughters on the team and were eager to help.

While Hagen admitted that she took an odd route to coaching, she’s grateful for the chance to bring the Liberty program back to prominence.

“I grew up here. I love this town,” Hagen said of Eldersburg. “I moved away, went to college and moved back to raise my kids here. I really love Liberty and I love the game. The kids are sort of an unending joy and to be able to coach here has been as much of a gift for me as anything I’ve been able to do.”