“I go and watch all the parks and rec camps and the gold-medal camps, just to see what’s out there,” Zeiler said. “And I texted Kim after the second day of the parks and rec camp, and I said, ‘These are our girls. This is our team.’
“Just their spirit is amazing,” Zeiler continued. “If you get to know these kids, they’re just an amazing group of kids. But their spirit, their work ethic, their willingness to learn, the way they support each other. It was just awesome to see. And in two days I just picked up on it right away.”
But as promising as this young core looked, it still needed to develop.
The Lions had solid records from 2013 through 2015, and continued to be competitive and finish near the top of the division. But they — and none of the North’s other four teams — couldn’t topple North Caroline, which had won 10 consecutive division titles and eight conference crowns from 2006 to 2016. In addition, Queen Anne’s went a collective 0-5 against Caroline and Kent Island in 2015, none of the matches reaching a fifth set.
Still, Zeiler maintained her belief.
“I’m a very patient person, kind of watching things unfold,” Zeiler said. “I just think, Kim’s an amazing coach, we’re a good coaching duo together, and we support the kids. And even if we hit a little down patch, we never convey that. We might push them a little harder or say something. But I watched them steadily grow. And I also know when they’re freshmen and sophomores they’re just learning the game. They don’t have much to go from. And just watching them make baby steps.”
Those steps became giant ones this season.
Queen Anne’s lost only two games in its first nine matches. Of its 16 victories, 12 were sweeps, including a pair over North Caroline. Only twice were the Lions taken to a fifth game, both coming against Kent Island, including an epic 25-19, 21-25, 25-21, 22-25, 1513 victory over the Bucs in the Class 2A East Section II championship match.
“They didn’t shake very easily,” said Betts, whose team’s season ended in the 2A East Region final against eventual state champion Rising Sun. “They just took it one point at a time. A lot of people said, ‘Wow, they really act like a team. They really work together as a team.’ These girls are friends on the court, off the court and that in itself made a huge difference. We had no drama. It was all business.
“Before we had key players, but we didn’t have the surrounding cast,” Betts said. “This group we had many athletes and we were able to make adjustments and put girls in different positions, whereas before I’d say some of the girls were really locked into one position and weren’t as versatile. So if somebody was having an off-game we could really make some spurof-the-moment changes and make it work.”
One Lion who never seemed to have an off-game was Blann, who with Kent Island senior Hannah Moran, shared Player-of-the-Year honors.
“I think she kept her composure,” Betts said of Blann. “She worked really hard at practice with all of the hitters. She took a lot of their feedback, and like I said, worked well with them to make adjustments to get things just right; make sure she was connecting with each hitter.”
In a season full of big steps, sweeps, spikes and all-around stellar player, that communication may have gone unnoticed by some, but Betts wasn’t part of that crowd.
“When she was a freshman, she never said a word,” Betts said of Blann. “She was very timid. And I think that was as big improvement in her game as well. She really stepped up to be a leader.
“She was very vocal and she appeared in every match,” Betts continued. “You take her out, it would have impacted us significantly had she not been on the court. If you take one piece out, she would have been the significant piece that we didn’t want to lose. The key piece.”
Blann finished with 333 assists — easily the highest single-season mark during Betts’s run as head coach. Added to that were 73 digs, 41 kills, 18 blocks and 40 aces.
“Her serves were amazing this year,” Betts said. “She put us back on top in a couple of matches when we were behind from when she was at the service line. She could block as well. So she was able to help our offense and our defense.”
Moran did the same thing at Kent Island, leading the Buccaneers to a 12-5 season, which ended with the marathon loss in the 2A East Section II final.
“She’s a true competitor,” Kent Island head coach Patrick Hopkins said of Moran. “She’s a true leader. She’s a young lady who, when she’s on the court, she makes other people better. That’s saying something when you have a player that’s not only good, but when you make the other people around you better, that’s a true athlete.”
The Bucs were 6-4 before Moran helped fuel a six-game win streak that included a victory over North Caroline in the sectional semifinals before losing to Queen Anne’s. Moran led Kent Island with 98 kills, 70 aces and 64 blocks.
“She brings a certain intensity to the game, which is hard to match,” Hopkins said. “Even in practice. She practices like she plays. She’s always in that constant, competitive mode. She’s like one of the best kids I’ve ever coached (since 2007). She just brings something tremendous to the game.”
Here’s a look at the rest of the first team:
Emma Feaga, Sr., Queen Anne’s
The outside hitter ranked second in kills (112) and digs (119) for the Lions. Finished year with a .404 hitting percentage and recorded 45 aces. Haily Sears, Sr., North Caroline An outside hitter, Sears finished with a .240 hitting percentage, and totaled 89 kills and 41 digs for the 12-3 Bulldogs. Allie Harris, Jr., Queen Anne’s A middle blocker, Harris netted a team-high 114 kills to go with a .452 hitting percentage. She also had 48 blocks and 23 digs. Kailey Boomer, Sr., Queen Anne’s The outside hitter netted a team-high 120 digs and finished with 92 kills, a .400 hitting percentage, and 20 aces.