Loudoun Valley seniors Justin Owens, Zach Lundgren and Zane Wilcox sat in the front row at Carroll County High School on Friday after making the nearly five-hour trek from Purcellville to Hillsville to watch the second-ranked Vikings in their Virginia AA semifinal against Rustburg.
Wilcox, one of about 100 Vikings fans who made the long journey, was decked in a dark green Loudoun Valley T-shirt with the phrase "Blair Brown Dominates Like Shaq in the WNBA" scribbled on the back.
Brown laughed when she saw it; Rustburg cringed when they saw her.
Led by Brown's match-high 18 kills, 6 aces and 5 blocks, Loudoun Valley (28-0) turned in a 25-22, 25-22, 25-23 victory over the Red Devils to advance to yesterday's state final against two-time defending champion Cave Spring. The Knights (27-1) advanced with a 3-0 sweep of Grafton in the second semifinal match.
"I can't even compare that team to any other we played this year," Rustburg Coach Kristen Hardie said of Loudoun Valley. "Blair is the best player we've ever faced. She had some great hits that we couldn't even come close to digging up. And we've played some good teams -- we lost to Cave Spring earlier this year -- but that team is the best we've seen so far."
The Vikings opened big leads in both the first and second games behind the steady serving of senior defensive specialist Jennifer Everhart, who rattled off six consecutive points in the first game to turn a 9-9 tie into a 15-9 lead, and 10 straight in the second game to turn a 9-7 deficit into a 17-9 advantage.
But Rustburg wasn't about to make it easy on the Vikings. Led by senior twins Carmen (8 kills, 5 blocks, 5 aces) and Monica Streeper (8 kills, 6 digs), the Red Devils proved resilient each game. They climbed back to 22-21 in the first game before falling, and scored seven straight at the end of the second game to turn what looked to be a blowout, at 23-12, into a much closer result.
"It clearly wasn't our best night, but I thought we played well," Vikings Coach Laird Johnson said. "What people have to understand is that they played very well, too. These are the best four teams in the state here tonight. They showed us some things we weren't used to seeing, and we showed them some things that caught them off guard, too.
"The only thing I can say about our mentality is that even when we struggled, we found a way to do what we had to do to win each time."
The Vikings ended the Red Devils' run at the end of that second game in dramatic fashion. It started and ended with Brown, who got a hand on a hard-hit shot by Monica Streeper after Streeper had registered the games' two previous kills. There were two Vikings in pursuit of Brown's wayward pass, but the ball hit hard off the ceiling and quickly changed direction and was heading back toward Brown in a hurry.
The 6-foot-4 junior started to stretch out before realizing she couldn't be the one to make the play, and from out of nowhere senior setter Allison Hamilton dove at her feet to pop up the ball and keep the play alive.
Brown then carried the ball to the other side of the net from deep in the back row for the game's final point.
"I didn't know where she even came from," Brown said of Hamilton. "But getting that point the way we did really got us going again."
Brown proceeded to rattled off four straight aces early in the third game for a 7-3 lead that the Vikings parlayed into a 23-18 advantage. Loudoun Valley then secured its spot in the final on a left side kill by Brown and a Rustburg error.
"This means everything to us," Everhart said. "Every goal we've set this year we've achieved, and we've only got one left. We really want to win this . . . and I know we're going to do it."