When Fauquier volleyball coach Diana Story kept three sophomores on her varsity squad two years ago, she didn't bother encouraging them to specialize in distinct skills. She didn't have to.

All three could serve, play defense and put the ball away, but each had a defining trait.

Blair St. Onge was a dynamic leaper and blocker who could control a match by soaring above the net. Ashley Young, also a middle hitter, mixed power and precision, ending points with strong and accurate blasts. Outside hitter Barbara Downes was the steadiest passer of the three, developing into the most consistent player Story has coached.

With each starting at least occasionally as sophomores, Fauquier advanced to the state tournament for the first time in school history before losing to Mills Godwin in the state semifinals.

Two years later, the three seniors form the core of a team that again harbors state championship ambitions. Despite their different strengths, Story said the Falcons' success this season will be determined by teamwork and chemistry, and her three stars wouldn't have it any other way.

"You'll notice Blair because she jumps out of the ceiling, you'll notice Ashley because she hits the ball so hard, but everyone working together is what makes us a team, and that's the girls' philosophy," Story said. "Without that, they wouldn't be where they are or where they're going to be."

Last year, the trio had hopes of duplicating the groundbreaking sophomore season, but the rebuilding Falcons finished 9-12 and missed the Region II playoffs. Still, the three won plenty of individual honors.

St. Onge, who boasts a 10-foot approach and has signed with James Madison, made second-team all-region, the only junior on the first or second teams. She and team MVP Downes were the only juniors on the all-Northwestern District first team, and Young was named to the second team.

With six other returning players, the Falcons have ambitious goals this winter. But the trio of leaders said experiences as sophomores prepared them well for another postseason run.

"We learned about pressure at a young age," said the 5-foot-11 St. Onge, who had 99 kills last season. "I've developed into the type of player where I realize one game isn't the rest of your life. You have to have fun. When your goal is to have a good time, the pressure doesn't get in your way."

Their foray into the playoffs as sophomores was hardly their first shared athletic experience. The three met nearly a decade ago at tryouts for a fourth-grade travel soccer team, and years of being teammates and friends have aided their on-court connection.

"There's always been a bond there, and it's grown over the years," Downes said. "It's not like playing with someone brand new. Since we've known each other forever, we didn't have to have that getting-to-know-you period this year. We just went straight into it."

The results have been obvious. The Falcons finished second among about 40 teams at a preseason camp. Fauquier's 2000 state semifinalist team finished sixth at the same event. The Falcons' three stars, along with junior setter Nicole Galvydis, were named to the 12-player all-star team.

Other weapons are senior setter Elyse Walker and outside hitters Lindsey Davis and Jen Linthicum, who have excelled in the first two weeks of the season, helping Fauquier to a 4-0 start through Monday.

If the Falcons do reach the playoffs this year, they are likely to rely on the three talented seniors who have been there previously.

"We learned what it takes to get there, all the hard work, practice and positive attitude," said Young, who tore ligaments in her left ankle last fall and was still recovering during volleyball season.

"We had a lot of pressure on us last year. We had just gone to states, but it was a young team, so it didn't go too well. This year, the pressure's off. We're all just having fun."

Barbara Downes is the Falcons' reigning most valuable player.Blair St. Onge has signed with James Madison. She was the only junior named to the first or second all-region teams last season.Ashley Young, from left, Blair St. Onge and Barbara Downes are longtime friends who met almost a decade ago at fourth-grade travel soccer tryouts.