Virginia Volleyball

Loudoun County emerges as a high school volleyball hotbed

By Matt Brooks
Thursday, November 19, 2009

From 2000 to 2004, Loudoun Valley dominated the AA volleyball landscape, winning four of five Region II titles and claiming three state championships. But soaring enrollment landed the Vikings in AAA for the 2005 season and since the move, success at the state level has been elusive.

Meantime, Loudoun County picked up the AA torch following Loudoun Valley's departure and has become a power the past four years. Led by senior outside hitter Juliane Hanna and senior setter Robin Marsala, the Raiders (23-3) have compiled a staggering 106-7 mark since 2006, including three straight appearances in the state title match.

Now both schools are heading to Richmond for state semifinal appearances, an impressive feat for a pair of programs separated by just eight miles. Loudoun Valley plays Thursday in a AAA semifinal against Mills Godwin at 8 p.m.; Loudoun County plays Friday at 4 in a AA state semifinal against Cave Spring.

South County will play Frank W. Cox on Thursday at 6 in the other AAA semifinal.

Heading into the fall, Coach Laird Johnson and the Vikings (21-5) knew this season would be their chance to make a splash. With six seniors back from last year's state quarterfinal team, Loudoun Valley had enough talent and experience to compete with anyone in the region. But just seven matches into the schedule, the Vikings were a very pedestrian 3-4, and a season once filled with promise needed a spark. That's when Johnson switched from his traditional 6-2 attack to a 5-1, putting the setting responsibility entirely on the shoulders of Nicole Bennett.

The move paid instant dividends as the Vikings won their next 14 matches, swept through the Cedar Run District and outlasted defending state champions Albemarle in a five-set thriller for the AAA Northwest Region championship Saturday in Charlottesville. The team's lone loss during that 18-1 run came at the hands of Heritage and Coach Carmel Keilty, who led the Vikings to back-to-back state titles in 2000 and 2001.

"The intangible that you have in teams that make it far is the chemistry of the players," Johnson said. "We knew when we made the change that our girls had the chemistry to adjust and make it work. These girls believe in each other, they've played together and grown up together and that shows every time they step on the court."

Up the road in Leesburg, Loudoun County Coach Jenica Matthias has transformed a one-win team into the most dominant program at the AA level, thanks in large part to scouting. Following a loss to Cave Spring in the 2006 state final, Matthias and her staff began rigorously scouting potential postseason opponents -- a strategy that helped produce back-to-back state championships the last two seasons.

"We learned as coaches that the more that you scout teams, the more prepared you are to play them and defend against them," Matthias said. "It has enabled us to jump on teams right away and not be shocked at what they show us on the court."

The Raiders swept Cave Spring earlier this season, and will be looking to continue that run of success Friday.

"When we lost the state final three years ago, the athletes that were on that team and were returning used that loss as so much motivation and they came back with no doubt in their mind that we were going to go back to the state finals and we were going to win," Matthias said. "That mentality got them the first state title and they've used it as a guideline ever since."

While the Raiders look to make it three straight, the Vikings are hoping to end their title drought and place another banner in the rafters.

"Knowing that we've been there before and we want to be the ones who get back there again," Loudoun Valley senior outside hitter Morgan Clark said. "We always say that we want to leave a legacy. When we leave, we want people to remember what we accomplished in our four years here at Valley."

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