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St. John’s junior Leighann Truesdale serves during the Vikings’ win last month at home against the FCA Baltimore Bravehearts. Truesdale is one of four transfers on the 2020 Vikings, who have won all five of their matches this season.

Last month, Meagan Graff had her St. John’s Catholic Prep volleyball players sit on the court, facing each other in pairs — at distances that adhered to the current protocols, of course. And in what amounted to one of the most important practices ahead of their 2020 season, she tossed something other than volleyballs at them.

She threw out some questions: What’s one of your favorite places to visit? What’s your favorite memory?

And the players talked for a few minutes. Then, they switched partners and continued.

Coming off a summer filled with restrictions on gatherings, entering a school year that would be anything but typical, St. John’s faced a problem that had little to do with the players’ ability to serve, set, spike and dig. They’d lost several seniors to graduation, and gained four transfers. This meant the Vikings didn’t know each other all that well — and gone were their chances for outings to play laser tag or grab lunch like seasons past.

So they speed-dated, as Graff called it.

“I remember actually getting paired with the girls that were transfers,” said Grace Murray, a middle blocker and one of just two seniors on the team. “I was lucky. I got to talk to girls I’d never talked with before. I loved that. I thought it was great.”

While their team-building continues even after five matches together, the Vikings’ progress in that area — and most others — could easily be measured by the victory they recorded last Saturday against Mount de Sales, the 2019 IAAM A conference champ. St. John’s, a member of the IAAM B conference, defeated the Cavaliers 25-20, 25-21, 25-21 in a sweep that shocked Murray and had Graff beaming.

Graff had set a goal for the Vikings to remain within five points of the Cavs in each set, expecting a taut match that would go the distance.

“If you look at the play by play, it’s incredibly close, back and forth,” Graff said. “We hit about that 20-point mark, and my team has figured out how to close that game and really go for those last couple of points.”

It’s just one way the team has exceeded Graff’s expectations. St. John’s is 5-0, having dropped just one set in a season that might not last much longer due to the pandemic. The Vikings have come far in a short period, thanks to their improving chemistry and the various ways Graff challenges them every day.

In her second year with the Vikings after starting as a coach in her native Washington County, Graff emphasizes high-pressure drills. She wants her players to break sets into five-point intervals, making it a more manageable game within a game.

She’s also a big believer in self-motivation. A St. John’s math teacher, Graff tracks numerous statistics in practice each week. The girls can view their individual stats if they ask, but Graff doesn’t let them see teammates’ numbers because she wants them competing against themselves.

Those Excel spreadsheets allow her to make informed game-day choices when it comes to rotations. The players, meanwhile, get to see hard evidence of their performance before competition.

“It’s encouraging to the girls, because they know going into that game, ‘I’ve been on all week. I can do this,’” Graff said.

The ultimate purpose of her bookkeeping is to produce as many well-rounded players as possible.

“That’s always my goal,” she said in a phone interview. “Even [Tuesday], we played a game where everybody played every [position], and they rotated through those positions, rapid fire.”

Murray said Graff’s insistence on individual improvement along with her many “mental toughness drills” have them playing well despite a lesser level of cohesion due to the season’s strange ramp-up. They get their next chance to put their work on display Saturday against IAAM B nemesis St. Mary’s, which defeated the Vikings in last year’s conference final.

“We’re fortunate that we have outgoing, great girls on the team, and that we’re willing to get along with everyone,” Murray said. “But it’s been a lot harder to get that team chemistry going as quick as other years.”

The coach credits Murray and fellow senior Mackayla Veillette for the examples they set on and off the court. The Vikings’ most well-rounded player is Veillette (45 kills, 42 digs, 16 aces), while junior Audrey Spindle (37 kills, .452 hitting percentage, 42 assists) is another. Junior Rory McClain is a top server and setter (23 aces, 63 assists), while Murray is their leading blocker (18). Sophomore libero Jillian Fedor (77 digs), a transfer from Catoctin, has fit in well on defense.

“As a coach, you always talk about relentless pursuit,” said Graff, 30, who played at North Hagerstown High. “Jill is that kid that will fly all the way to the wall for every ball.”

That may have been the Vikings’ collective mindset in the critical moments against Mount de Sales. The IAAM has allowed its member teams to pursue independent schedules in which a typical postseason is nonexistent this fall. With more and more games getting postponed due to coronavirus concerns, and with fewer teams actually still in action, the Vikings might not get many more chances to continue their team-building and winning streak.

Given all of that, St. John’s viewed Saturday’s win as a championship-caliber accomplishment.

“I was thinking we could pull it off because we have so much talent this year,” Murray said, “but I was just shocked that it was the three-set sweep.”

Joshua R. Smith is the News-Post sports editor. He writes stories and columns about sports, life and fatherhood. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaR_Smith.

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