John Brown sat in a big gym in a small town in central Virginia earlier this month, resting a clipboard on his lap.
Nobody asked about the Loudoun County polo he was wearing, or knew he was representing the most dominant volleyball power in the state, a program with a 190-8 record over the past seven seasons. No one even noticed he was there.
A volleyball smacked off the floor as Brown adjusted his glasses and looked down at the clipboard. The top sheet of paper showed the outline of a volleyball court, with a dark black line down the middle as a net. On one side, close to the line, he marked where the player had made contact with the ball. On the other, he marked where the ball had landed, filling in a circle to indicate a kill.
Brown looked back up at the court, watching a few more points of the Virginia region playoff match before wondering aloud why the home team was keeping its two best hitters directly next to each other. That lineup was unbalanced, he told his wife, Libbey, seated next to him. It created a potential weakness when the top hitters rotated to the back line.
“They may change that if they play a better team. You don’t know that,” Libbey Brown said.
John Brown shook his head.
“Nobody changes,” he said.
As a volunteer assistant coach at No. 1 Loudoun County, John Brown takes trips like this one a handful of times each season to schools across the state, some as far south as Roanoke. The 61-year-old father of Raiders Coach Jenica Brown is an important cog in the team’s scouting machine, which is one of the many reasons why Loudoun County is on the brink of its sixth state title in seven seasons.
The Raiders (29-0) face Grafton in Thursday’s Virginia 4A state semifinals Thursday at Siegel Center on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
While scouting is commonplace in college and professional sports, it is a relatively untapped resource in the world of high school volleyball. Some teams dabble in statistics and study film, but no team in the area scouts its opponents as thoroughly and ruthlessly as Loudoun County.
“It takes more of a football, basketball-type mentality over the volleyball court,” said assistant coach Jarod Brown, Jenica’s brother. “A lot of coaches focus on just their side of the court and don’t really get concerned with what’s on the other side. Well, you need to understand that in order to beat your opponent. You have to be able to understand what they’re trying to do.”
The Raiders have won 47 consecutive matches entering Thursday’s semifinal, and they haven’t dropped a set since Sept. 10. Scouting isn’t the only factor behind that success, but it certainly hasn’t hurt.
“We typically don’t get surprised by much,” senior outside hitter Maggie Phillips said. “It helps us jump out on games one and two because the coaches have given us a sense of what we’d see and what we’d be up against. It gives us a sense of orientation.”
The Raiders get a lot of their information by sending scouts to matches with future opponents, particularly teams that they might encounter in the postseason. Sometimes the scout is John Brown, who is retired and turns long-distance trips into mini-vacations, or one of the other four coaches on staff. Sometimes it’s a parent or alumna of the team. And sometimes it’s one of the players, who will eventually try to take that information and use it to their advantage in a match.
Scouts try to gather all kinds of information, from the team’s starting lineup to the style and tendencies of individual players. The goal is to not only learn whether the opposing setter will tip the ball over the net, for example, but where, how and with what frequency. The coaching staff takes all of that information and organizes it into a report, which is distributed to players and used as a guideline for practice in the days leading up to a match.
“It’s always an advantage to know what your opponent is going to do before they do it,” setter Mandy Powers said. “If we know a team has a really strong middle or a really strong outside, we can work really hard [in practice] on digging middle or digging outside. It always gives us an edge.”
When the Raiders can’t scout a team in person, Jarod and Jenica Brown, now in her 12th year leading the Loudoun County team, fall back on other techniques to dig up information about an opponent. They sift through newspaper articles online, noting which individual players are mentioned and why. They also locate and organize any available stats to pinpoint an opponent’s go-to hitter or server, or identify tough defensive players by digs.
“A lot of times, our scouting isn’t the traditional way that people would scout,” said Jenica, whose interest in volleyball long ago rubbed off on the rest of her family. “It’s a lot of different things. Mainly it’s just giving the girls something that they can understand and control out there on the court.”
The philosophy is rooted in Jenica’s dogged attention to detail, which dates back to her days as a college player at Shepherd University. Her coach, a Ukrainian named Lu Kormeluk, would spend 25 minutes of practice teaching only the proper footwork needed to hit a ball. After 25 minutes, Jenica would still have a question.
In 2003, during Jenica’s second year at Loudoun County, the Raiders reached the state semifinals and faced Jefferson Forest, a team they had not scouted that season. They lost the first two sets, won the third and lost the fourth, ending their season.
Jenica ran up to her father after the match, tears streaming down her face.
“We would have won if we scouted,” she said.
And that’s why they scout, John Brown said as he walked out of the big gym in the small town toward a silver sedan in the parking lot.
“You don’t want to be caught with your pants down, lose the first game because you didn’t scout,” he said. “We scout everyone now.”