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"They're Not Priss Pots"

How Charlotte Catholic girls became a volleyball powerhouse

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Anybody who has lived awhile knows that what you see isn't always what it seems. Take the Charlotte Catholic High Schoolgirls' volleyball team, en route to the 2A state championship match. As their blue and white activity bus rolled down the highway, the Cougars turned their three-hour trip to Raleigh into a beauty salon on wheels. With some still in their pajamas, they took turns braiding each other's hair, painting their nails and putting on eye make-up. "The eye shadow was light blue, one of our school colors," says their coach, Tim Leary. "Players would move from seat to seat to get the next thing done. One player was plucking everybody's eyebrows." Perhaps such behavior is normal for a generation of female athletes who've grown up with the message that it's perfectly OK to do traditional "girl" things and be a sports competitor -- a serious competitor. Regardless, Leary, their coach of seven years, knows the casual atmosphere before matches keeps his players loose. "They have fun together," he says. "I'm a nervous wreck."

When his team arrived at NC State's Reynolds Coliseum for the state title match, their opposition was Southern Vance, a Henderson-area school unbeaten in 34 matches. But the Cougars were primed for the kill. They repeatedly exploited Southern Vance's weakest passer by serving to her and blunted the hitting prowess of Duke-bound Tiffany Perry by "stuff-blocking" Perry at the net. The Cougars notched 21 stuff-blocks in winning in three straight games.

The Cougars' aggressiveness impressed Southern Vance Coach Darlynn Oxendine. "Catholic was totally an offensive team," she told the Raleigh News & Observer after the match.

So, if you thought these Charlotte teenagers have more invested in prettiness than performance, think again. And look at their amazing record.

To begin with, Catholic's 15-13, 15-5, 15-10 victory over Southern Vance was the school's third straight state championship. The Cougars have routinely beaten the best public schools of any size over the last couple of years, and this season, they set the state record for most consecutive wins -- now at 78 -- for any volleyball team in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. Last August, they defeated the defending champions in the other three state classifications, 1A, 3A and 4A. In their conference, the Rocky River 2A, the Cougars haven't suffered a loss in more than five seasons (62 straight wins).

Since league play began in 1975, only two schools have won more consecutive state titles than Catholic. And they've won four each -- 4A Durham Jordan (1983-86) and 1A Hendersonville (1997-00). Four other schools have earned three straight titles -- 3A Smoky Mountain (1991-93) and Fred T. Foard (1995-97), 2A Forbush (1996-98) and 1A Swansboro (1993-95).

Catholic is the only school from Charlotte to have won more than two state titles in public-school volleyball competition. That sounds funny, given that Catholic is a private school. But Catholic has played in public-school leagues for decades. West Charlotte won the 4A title in 1997 and 2000, while Providence High captured it in 1996.

So how did Catholic become a powerhouse? Exposing girls to the game early and emphasizing skill development.

The Cougars have never been an overly tall team, and this year's was the shortest among the three championship clubs, Leary says. Average height: five-feet, seven-inches. Yet, this team faced the toughest competition in Raleigh and performed the best of Catholic's three title winners in the final match, Leary says. He cites experience -- four of six starters are seniors and they'd all been to two state finals -- and their well-rounded skills.

"We do a lot of situation work," he says, noting that he favors drills over scrimmages in practice. "We work on passing, serving, defense -- the whole thing. This raises our skill level."

A good example of skill development is senior Erin Street, an outstanding setter and server. Her speed and vertical jump aren't exceptional, but her placement is. Before each serve in a match, she eyes Leary on the bench to see where his pencil is pointing on his clipboard -- which indicates where to serve the ball. For example, at his direction in the title match, Street reeled off seven straight serves to the same receiver, who couldn't handle the ball.

"Erin plays at such a high level, we can be explosive," Leary says. Junior Brittany Zahn (11 kills a game this season) and senior Amy Berlak (seven a game) usually provide the firepower. Zahn, also an outstanding power server (four a game), was MVP of the state championship in 2000.

Berlak led Catholic in blocks this season, but sophomore Mary Kate Peer came on strong late in the season. Through the regular season (23 games), Peer had 13 "stuff blocks." In the playoffs (four games), she had 30. Meanwhile, senior Stephanie Merholtz led the team in digs (10 a game), and senior Erin Dula contributed strong all-round skills.

The team's leader is Street, a role that falls to her as the setter and one she's grown into. Before the state title match her sophomore year (1999), she hyperventilated during warm-up.

"I was shaking," she recalls. "Oh, my God, I was so nervous. Tim calmed me down. He told me everybody was nervous. I realized we just needed to stick to our game and have fun and not worry about the other team (Swansboro). We didn't want another wake-up call."

Street was referring to the last loss Catholic suffered. It was to Cardinal Gibbons of Raleigh in August 1999. "We weren't as good as we thought we were," Street says.

But the defeat put Catholic on course to become the three-time state titleholder it is today. "I raised expectations for myself and for the team," Leary says. "I knew we had the talent." Among other changes, he instituted mandatory year-round weight training and Saturday practices.

The reason Catholic could ratchet up so quickly -- it won its first state title that same year -- was that the team had a good foundation of experience. Most of the girls had been playing volleyball since they were adolescents.

Street is typical. She began playing year-round when she was 11. She credits Leary and former Catholic Coach Bettie Berry (now Myers Park High volleyball coach) with developing her skill.

"I went to their camps, and they built my game," she says. She played on the school team at Holy Trinity Middle School, then joined the Catholic varsity as a ninth grader. And today, like four other Catholic starters, she plays junior volleyball from late fall through most of spring.

In college, Street will likely wind up playing below NCAA Division I, the highest level, because of her height and jumping ability. The setting expertise is there, but she's only five-foot, nine-inches. Most Division I setters are six-feet or more. Among the schools she's looking at are Catholic University, Providence College, West Virginia Wesleyan and Coker.

Leary, whose full-time is as the chef at Fenwick's Restaurant, came to Catholic in 1992 as its first junior varsity coach. Berry, then the varsity coach, recruited him. He played the game at a high level recreationally and had coached the women's volleyball team at Belmont Abbey. Together, they emphasized building skills at the jayvee level and didn't worry about wins and losses. When she left in 1995, Leary took her job. His record is 131-15 over seven seasons.

That's outstanding -- especially for a coach who battles nerves before every match. While his players giggle, pick at each other and laugh while they're warming up on the floor, Leary stays away because he'd like to tone them down. But he knows that's how they relax.

Once the players jog onto the floor, they're all business -- jumping, hitting, serving, even diving on the hardwood. After the state championship match this year, a reporter asked Amy Berlak about a huge floor burn on her lower arm, one of several players had from the match. Berlak shrugged as if to say, "Floor burn, what floor burn?"

"These girls aren't priss pots,?" Leary says. "They're not worried about breaking a nail." They just look like they might be until you see them on the court. *


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