One school came to mind for the better part of two decades when discussing volleyball in Trumbull and Mahoning counties: Hubbard High School.
The Eagles have been the dominant program in the area under coach Chuck Montgomery, who guided Hubbard to a 465-101 record in his 21 years as coach. Yet, Montgomery stepped down after last season, and his departure has other teams hoping to dethrone the Eagles as the premier program.
One of those teams is led by a former pupil of Montgomery's. Howland's Amanda Lingenfelter coached with Montgomery for seven years and is in her second season with the Tigers, who are coming off a huge win over Lakeview, another school hoping to take the reins from Hubbard.
Lingenfelter and the Tigers went 14-9 last year and have a very strong senior class. They showed their poise on Tuesday in edging Lakeview in five sets for a statement victory.
"It was definitely a good experience for the girls," said Lingenfelter, a 2002 Hubbard graduate. "Year and year out (Lakeview is) one of the teams to beat. (Lakeview coach) Scott Taylor has a really strong program. They're well respected in the area and that state, so to be able to beat them, we're thrilled. Not that we didn't expect to win, but the girls needed to realize they're capable of doing anything. We're trying to get to that level."
Some of the key players returning are seniors Erika Lapmardo, an outside hitter, Erika Airhart, a captain and a middle hitter, Megan Papals, a setter, Kelly Duncan, another captain and a middle hitter, Haley Chill, a defensive specialist; Samantha Bailes, another defensive specialist.
Lingenfelter said the potential is there for the Tigers to make a run at a championship in the American Division of the All-American Conference, but Howland still has plenty of room to grow.
"Offensively, it's probably one of the strongest teams I've ever hard to work with," she said. "We're still kind of coming together defensively. They always look for a big kill, and they forget to play defense behind it. I'm more of a defensive-minded coach. That's where you win big games and championships."
No one knows that as well as Taylor, whose Bulldogs fell just short of a title in the National Division of the AAC last year.
Lakeview only has three starters returning and there isn't a single senior on the roster, but Taylor said his youthful group is very talented and could improve from last year, when they finished 20-4, losing twice to Girard and Geneva. The losses to the Indians led to Girard winning the National Division, while the second setback to Geneva ended Lakeview's season in the second round of the Division II playoffs. The early departure played a part in Taylor reshuffling the Bulldogs' schedule to better prepare the Bulldogs for the postseason.
"We've really upgraded our schedule - seriously upgraded," said Taylor, who's in his 18th year at Lakeview. "We don't play anyone outside of the league that isn't Division I or II. We play Solon, who I believe will be a state-caliber team. We also play Hudson, Massillon, we're in the Uniontown Lake tournament, and we're hoping that will make us tournament tough."
For that to happen, the Bulldogs will have to grow up fast. Leading the way will be captains Caitlin McDivitt, a junior setter, and Taylor Waid, a junior libero. Other notable returners are middles Marissa Naples and Calli Schmitt, who could be a force in the center at 5-foot-11.
"We're going to be really young," Taylor said. "We don't have a senior in the program. But I have six really good juniors, three really good sophomores and a freshman. And with the same team coming back next year, who knows how far we can go."
But Taylor's gang is focused on right now because while there are high hopes for the Bulldogs, there could be some growing pains along the way.
"Absolutely," said Taylor when asked if he was worried about leadership with such a young team. "You have to show the leaders how to lead. I think my captains are starting to get that."
SOME THINGS STAY THE SAME: Losing Montgomery sounded like a devastating blow for Hubbard, which epitomized consistency during his tenure.
Luckily, much of that stability will remain under first-year coach Jeremy Porter. In fact, Porter doesn't see a reason to change much of anything. He worked as Montgomery's assistant for the past 14 seasons, and after dominating the area for most of that time, he hopes to carry on the winning tradition.
"I've tried to keep everything the same as what we've been doing in the past," Porter said. "I learned from the best. (Montgomery and I) have been together for almost 15 years, so when things work, I'm not going to change them up."
The Eagles return five seniors from last year's team, which finished 15-8. All are expected to be key contributors for Hubbard. Maris Sarisky, an outside hitter, is a three-year starter and an all-league and all-district player. Marquette Gasser, a setter, has already broken school records never an easy task at Hubbard. Megan DeMailio, a middle hitter, is a three-year starter, while Morgan Lopuchovsky, a defensive specialist, is a two-year starter. Emily Perry, a libero, is another three-year starter and one of the Eagles' top defensive players.
"I'm glad he left me with this group," Porter said. "These kids have been through the fire. They know what their goals are."
STILL COMING TOGETHER: Girard is coming off another great season under 13-year coach Phil Walters, but the veteran coach said the Indians have their work cut out for them in 2012.
Girard finished 10-0 in the AAC and 23-4 overall, but it lost some key players and saw another one go down with an injury this summer.
"Most of our back row is returning, but, unfortunately, we graduated most of our front row," he said. "The only starter in the front row who was returning tore her ACL in the spring. Callie Jay is out until late September. She's my best player. She's an outside hitter. She was second-team All-AAC and second-team all district last year. She's about 5-11, and the only reason she was second team was because her sister was first team."
Walters has seen signs of encouragement, especially on the defensive side. Leading that group is Hayley Spalla, an honorable-mention all-conference player last season at libero. She's moved to setter this year and has adjusted well to the change, Walters said. The big question is where the offense will from for the Indians. Much of the onus falls on sophomore Taylor Bell, an outside hitter who plays mainly in the front row. Walter said he's thrown a lot at her, but she's catching on quickly.
Overall, Walters likes the direction the Indians are headed.
"Our defense is much improved," he said. "We're doing much better than we did last year. We were a bit offensive minded last year, but we're better defensively, and I think it's going to help us in the long run. We're going to take our hits until we get it together, but I'll take it."