Out of Bounds
COLLEGE PARK — As I was exiting Ritchie Coliseum on the University of Maryland campus Nov. 12 after the La Plata Warriors swept Bel Air of Harford County in the Class 3A state semifinals to reach the volleyball program’s first Maryland championship, a couple of fellow reporters not from Southern Maryland curiously asked me what’s happened to the Calvert County programs that used to yearly compete for state titles in the 3A ranks.
They were referring to Northern, Calvert, Patuxent and Huntingtown dominating the 3A South Region from the 1990s through 2009, combining to win nine 3A state titles during that span.
I simply answered, “Catherine Lavery happened.”
It was then that my colleagues, covering high school programs in other counties and conferences of the state, got a glimpse of what it’s been like for me to report on one of the top head coaches I’ve ever had the pleasure of following in any sport.
Her face is definitely on the Mount Rushmore of head coaches of all sports within the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference as far as my money is worth.
Keep in mind, I’ve covered a lot of sports during my 15 years as a journalist. Timeout: Am I really that old?
And I’ve seen a ton of quality head coaches on the job. In fact, rarely do I encounter a sub-par coach. The SMAC is blessed with quality coaches year after year, regardless of the sport.
But Lavery is special. Very special.
Saturday night in Ritchie Coliseum, Lavery ended her masterful six-year run as the architect of La Plata’s SMAC- and 3A South Region-best program by coaching the Warriors in the state final.
La Plata was swept in three sets by Damascus, the Warriors’ only loss of this season in 19 matches. La Plata had won 54 of 56 sets prior to falling in the state final.
While disappointment initially followed the end of the match, the teary eyes and emotions were more about the retrospective joy of celebrating a brilliant coaching tenure.
Lavery turned an average SMAC program — which saw La Plata go 6-10 overall and 5-7 in the league while only being third-best in the county the year before she arrived — into the marquee team in the league over her last four seasons. La Plata boasts two of the last three SMAC titles and has claimed the last four 3A South crowns to move on to states each time.
Lavery was surprised in her final post-match interview to hear the numbers she accumulated at the helm of La Plata in her six seasons: 87-18 overall record (.829 win percentage), 61-11 SMAC mark (.847) and 15-6 playoff record (.714).
“When I first came [in 2008], I just enjoyed coaching and being part of [my players’] lives,” Lavery said. “It’s fun to be with all these great girls. They’re so wonderful to coach. That’s why I do it. I don’t really keep track of numbers. It’ll be hard to leave, but I’ve had a wonderful six years. I want to thank all the fans that support us.”
La Plata junior middle hitter Caitlin Simmons said, “Coach Cak’s the best coach I’ve ever had. [Those numbers] don’t surprise me. She’s individually worked with me so much and made me the player I am today.”
The outgoing La Plata coach has also been instrumental with leading the year-round Charles County juniors, most recently the last four years atop the 18-and-Under team.
Never had La Plata won a SMAC or regional title before Lavery. The Warriors’ finish as the state runners-up was obviously an all-time top season for the program.
In the process of seemingly pulling the impossible within the SMAC and 3A South by unseating the dominant reigns of the Calvert County outfits, La Plata was, most impressively, not just a one-year wonder. La Plata won double-digit matches in each of Lavery’s seasons.
“She was an amazing coach and taught us so much and let us reach our potential,” La Plata senior libero Kelsey Gragan said. “Her ability to connect with us and teach us the game on more levels than just one [was her biggest strength]. Of anyone I’ve ever come across, she knows [volleyball] the best. She helps us in anyway possible. We practice like crazy.”
La Plata senior outside hitter Faith Laidley, who became a SMAC standout under Lavery, added, “She connects to us like she’s our mother. When she coaches us, she’s like our mom. She just has that calmness where you go to her for everything.
“I’m extremely happy [with how we’ve become the best in SMAC]. It just proves that a little team can do something big if you have the right coach. She was awesome.”
Simmons echoed Laidley about Lavery, “I feel like she treats you like her own child and that’s her secret. When you do something wrong, you know she has faith in you and you want to do something good.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I really do love being around my players and I love to coach,” said Lavery.
Two of La Plata’s star players during Lavery’s time know what it’s like to be an actual child of the accomplished coach. Lavery coached both her oldest daughters, Mary and most recently senior Maggie, throughout their high school careers.
Maggie is headed to Division II California University of Pennsylvania to play with Mary, who graduated from La Plata in 2011.
“It was my mom’s last season along with all of us [seniors], but they’ll be good again next season,” Maggie assured about La Plata. “This isn’t the end for La Plata here [at the state playoffs]. They’ll be back.”
I can still remember interviewing Catherine Lavery in the fall of 2008 when she was in her first year as the head coach of La Plata’s volleyball team, aside from spending one season atop the Warriors helm 24 years previously.
She arrived to La Plata with big-time credentials as the head coach of 10 years at University of Maryland Baltimore County and two seasons at Towson University.
I was instantly sold on her confidence about La Plata becoming a SMAC contender during an early-season interview that 2008 season after the Warriors pulled off an upset victory over Calvert in four sets. Calvert County clubs were still dominating the SMAC through 2008.
As much as I admired the confidence and knowledge of Lavery, I thought this quote she gave me in that 2008 interview was more about hopeful intentions than any real culture change in the SMAC and 3A South.
“Everybody seems to think [it was a big upset],” Lavery told me about her team’s win over Calvert. “But looking at our team, player for player, we had a better team [than Calvert]. We had better hitters, and I have great athletes.
“We want to take La Plata volleyball and bring it up a notch. We want to be known as a team that’s trained well and technically sound.”
As it turned out, Lavery’s confidence was anything but mere coach-speak.
And she was anything but just another SMAC coach.
6 volleyball seasons
Overall record: 87-18 (.829 win percentage)
SMAC record: 61-11 (.847); 2 SMAC titles (2011, 2013)
Playoff record: 15-6 (.714); Class 3A state runner-up (2013), 3A South Region champion (2010-13)
Year by year
2007 (year before Lavery’s arrival): 6-10, 5-7 (eighth in SMAC, third in county)
2008: 11-4, 9-3 (fourth in SMAC, first in county)
2009: 10-6, 8-4 (tied for fourth in SMAC, first in county)
2010: 15-3, 10-2 (tied for third in SMAC, first in county)
2011: 18-1, 12-0 (SMAC champion, first in county)
2012: 15-3, 10-2 (tied for second in SMAC, first in county)
2013: 18-1, 12-0 (SMAC champion, first in county)