Loudoun County girls' tennis coach Randy Hanger has tried repeatedly to convince his Raiders that they are capable of repeating as Virginia AA champions.
"I've been telling them all year that I think this team is as good, if not better than, last year's team," Hanger said. "I'm not sure they really believed it. But now, I think they're starting to believe."
The Raiders are making their third straight trip to the state tournament at Radford, where they will play Abingdon in the state semifinals tomorrow morning. Jamestown plays Hidden Valley in the other semifinal, and the chances are good that Loudoun County could meet Jamestown in the state tournament for the third consecutive season.
A year ago, the Raiders edged Jamestown, 5-4, to snap the Eagles' run of three straight state titles. Jamestown defeated Loudoun County in the 2002 semifinals.
If Loudoun County does face Jamestown, "I think it'll be a great match," Hanger said. "It's always very close."
The Raiders and Eagles each have succeeded in reaching the state semifinals without their standout No. 1 players of a year ago. Loudoun County's Blakeley Griffith, the singles winner each of the past three years, is now playing for Tennessee. And Jamestown's Ashley James, whose career atop the Eagles' lineup mirrored Griffith's, also graduated last June.
The path Loudoun County (17-3) took to the state tournament was a little different this year than last year, when it went unbeaten despite several challenges from Loudoun Valley. This season the Raiders lost three times to the Vikings (20-2), all by 5-4, including once in the Dulles District team final.
But two weeks ago in the Region II championship match, the Raiders delivered their best performance of the season, eliminating the Vikings by winning five of the six singles matches. Unlike every other Virginia High School League-sanctioned sport, only region champions advance to the state tournament in tennis.
"I think [playing those tough matches against Loudoun Valley] got us really prepared for the state tournament, and it was really the same thing last year," Hanger said. "It makes us tougher."
Hanger brought his team together before the Loudoun Valley match to talk about strategy, something he wanted to stress heading into the important final weeks of the season.
"We talked a lot about singles strategy and doubles strategy, the mental aspects," Hanger said. "A lot of it was about the mental toughness you have to have in these big matches."
The Raiders displayed that toughness in the playoffs, as several players emerged for strong performances.
Loudoun County's top three players -- senior Mindy Hsiao, junior Madison McGuire and freshman Laura Halley -- routinely have produced victories this season, but Hanger said the recent play of seniors Lauren Dyer and Mary Kearl has been crucial. Dyer defeated Loudoun Valley's Katia McClain for the first time at the region final.
"It's all coming together right now," Hanger said. "We're peaking at the right time."