Two things became very apparent at Potomac Falls on Tuesday on what was the first day of classes and the first night of AA Dulles District volleyball.
The first was that as good as Loudoun Valley junior middle hitter Blair Brown was a year ago when she was district player of the year, she has the potential -- and the talent -- to be far more dominant this season. Of the 18 times Brown got all of the power of her 6-foot-4-inch frame behind her swing -- from the front row or the back -- only once did a Potomac Falls defender dig the shot.
Still, perhaps more important, the second revelation was this: Volleyball in the Dulles District is alive and well.
Despite an overpowering performance by Brown -- who totaled 23 kills in 33 attempts -- No. 8 Loudoun Valley was pushed in every game before outlasting the Panthers, 26-24, 25-19, 26-24.
"I definitely think that this was an indication of how competitive our district is going to be again this year," said Potomac Falls senior Emily Mims, who is fully recovered from an ankle injury that slowed her a year ago and shined with 20 kills, 11 digs and 4 aces. "Just like last year I think it's not going to be one or even two teams at the top but four or five who can win this district."
To do so, however, teams almost certainly will have to go through Loudoun Valley. The Vikings looked solid on defense, got great serving from senior setter Jen Todd and looked comfortable running their new 6-2 offense that rotates Todd (20 assists) and senior transfer Allison Howard (11) at setter.
"The most important thing for us is that this team is still learning about itself, still finding its character," Loudoun Valley Coach Laird Johnson said. "We've got the big hitters on offense, and we're playing well defensively. Now we just need to get that third part, that team confidence to really be able to put games away. It's a learning experience as a team, but the best thing is that we're finding a way to win while we work through that."
The first two games went back-and-forth, with neither team holding more than a four-point lead until Vikings senior Sarah Neikirk served three consecutive points fora 24-18 edge.
After yielding one point to the Panthers (1-1, 0-1 in district) on a kill by Mims, the Vikings (5-0, 1-0) closed out the second game on a block by Brown at the net.
Loudoun Valley parlayed the momentum from that game to a six-point lead in the third, 17-11, before Potomac Falls battled back behind Mims's hitting and some crafty work by junior setter Kathryn Hofer to pull within 17-16 and eventually tie the score at 23.
"I'm seriously pleased with the way my girls played tonight," Potomac Falls Coach Linda Lachey-Helms said. "We've got a few things we need to tweak, a few things to work on, but what's great about this group is that was also evident to them after the game. They came into the huddle and knew right away what they need to improve on. And that tells me we'll do nothing but get better, bit by bit."
The teams were locked again at 24 before back-to-back kills by Brown -- one on a booming middle hit and the last on a well-placed tip -- ended the match.
"Blair has always been an excellent hitter," Todd said. "She's tall and strong and so powerful. But this year she also knows the game so much better. You can tell she's a dominant hitter even when she tips it, because that's what smart players do.
"But when she does get a hold of one and really hits it . . . it's almost unstoppable."