HOWLAND - As Erika Lapmardo rose to the net and prepared to hammer down one of her patented spikes, the Struthers Wildcats prepared for the worst.
Lapmardo, a senior on the Howland High School volleyball team, is one of the top players in the area and can absolutely smash a volleyball, to the point where even fans in the stands and referees better be aware or they'll soon be leaving with a bloody nose or bruised head. So, the Wildcats readied for one of Lapmardo's vicious blows.
Yet, this time was different. The powerful stroke the 5-foot-9 outside hitter usually deploys became a soft and subtle tip over two defenders. While Struthers may have momentarily breathed a sigh of relief, the result of the shot was the same: A point for the Tigers.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Howland’s Erika Lapmardo (white 17) makes a block on Jackson-Milton’s Maddy Tomaino during a recent match.
The play may seem like the easy way out for someone who doesn't fully understand the sport, but with most of the defense waiting on the back line for a typical Lapmardo slam, she used another strength of her game to outsmart the Wildcats. Seeing her make the wise choice was nothing new for second-year Howland coach Amanda Lingenfelter.
"Her knowledge of the game is well beyond most kids her age," Lingenfelter said. "She's a little bit of a coach on the floor. She's able to pick up on things instead of me yelling at her play to play. She automatically does it."
It's a part of her game that may be masked by her athleticism and powerful spikes. Lapmardo, who's being recruited by several area colleges, is a well-known player in the volleyball circuit and is continuing to display her talent this year after an impressive junior season. In 2011, she led Howland in points, aces, kills and digs, and this year she's averaging a team-high 14 points and 12 digs per match.
She put on a show earlier in September when the Tigers lost a wild and intense match against Hubbard. Lapmardo earned a career-high 28 kills and 25 digs against the Eagles, a perennial powerhouse in volleyball.
Lingenfelter said it's not necessarily Lapmardo's physical attributes that impress her. It's the attention to detail.
"She has very strong fundamentals, so I think the rest of the game comes a lot easier to her," Lingenfelter said. "I'm confident to go to her on big plays, in big matches to be a go-to player, to swing matches around and swing the momentum our way. And she's got a good group of girls around her, a good setter, they communicate well, players who can pass the ball up in the air for her. They're starting to come together better as a team."
Lapmardo has really made tremendous growth in the past year to become an all-around player, Lingenfelter said. She's playing more aggressively, doing better defensively, seeing what's happening on the court and reacting quicker. She's also become a leader for the Tigers, who are currently 11-5. Lapmardo said she credits the progress to an improved understanding of the game.
"You can teach anyone a skill, but I think my strongest part is that I really know the game," Lapmardo said. "You have to constantly be thinking, and it's like I've been programmed to always think about what I'm doing, what's going on, which way the hitter is facing. You have to know the game and what's going on. Anyone can learn how to pass a ball, but not everyone can learn where to be. Knowing that stuff has gotten me so far."
In a sport full of ups and downs and momentum swings, staying positive and keeping herself and her teammates from becoming discouraged when things aren't going well has become an integral part of her role. Lapmardo admitted that hasn't always been a strong point of her game, but she spent the past few offseasons playing on an area club team and focused on keeping her emotions in check.
"It's a tough mental game, and you really have to stay focused 100 percent of the time," she said. "When you're younger, you get frustrated, and you have to learn not to get frustrated. And it still comes out of me sometimes. Our last game was the first time it's really showed in about two years. But it's something you have to constantly focus on."
The work has paid off. Lingenfelter, a former star volleyball player herself who graduated from Hubbard High School in 2002, was an assistant coach for the Eagles for seven years and coached numerous club teams in the offseason. So, she's seen her share of great players, and Lapmardo might be the best yet.
"Very rarely do you get an all-around player like her in this area," she said. "We've had many standouts in this area in volleyball, but as an all-round player, she stands out above a lot. To have a player who's equally strong defensively and offensively, is probably a coach's dream. She's not good at one facet of the game, she's good at all of them. "