Ninth in a series.
Dressed in practice uniforms one warm Saturday morning, the Loudoun Valley girls' volleyball team sat outside, painting the hitters' boxes -- an annual tradition.
Featured on the side of one box, a tool the team uses when practicing digs, were the words "The Jungle," an allusion to the boisterous fans who follow Vikings sports closely on the road and at home, where Loudoun Valley enjoys one of the best home-court advantages in the area.
"The Jungle means everything to the team," said senior All-Met middle hitter Blair Brown, who has made a verbal commitment to attend Penn State. "They are our biggest support system. Your parents still come, but it's so great that your peers want to come out and watch your games. They get so loud and rowdy. The atmosphere in the gym is just amazing."
Even Loudoun Valley's opponents recognize the effect the Jungle has on the game.
"When it comes to Valley games, we get excited because the Jungle is so huge," said Loudoun County High School volleyball and tennis player Laura Halley. "It's the biggest crowd group. Our fans get together and try to go against Valley's Jungle. . . . During volleyball games it gets so loud you can't hear anything. It's so fun."
The Jungle probably will have a lot to cheer about this season, especially when it comes to girls' sports. The volleyball and softball teams have won five state titles combined since 2001.
Loudoun Valley Athletic Director Janeen Schutte puts the winning in perspective.
"I think we have achieved [success] the right way. It hasn't been easy. We haven't always been on top. We're just having a really good run right now," Schutte said. "Success isn't measured by wins and losses. It's [measured] on and off the field. The coaches set standards. . . . The kids see this, and they see the hard work and preparation that is done, so they want to give it back."
Loudoun Valley football and track coach Bruce Sheppard says one of the school's biggest plusses, especially on the football team, is the bond between players and the relationship between the team, coaches and community. The football team eats breakfast, lunch and dinner together weekly and hosts a preseason picnic for family members.
"If you're going to look at my specific group, our biggest tradition is that we are family," Sheppard said one late morning between practices while the football team was lined up along the halls eating bag lunches together.
Senior running back and linebacker Tommy Schonder agrees team meals before games and subsequent bonding are important.
"First, it gets us focused for [game] day," Schonder said. "It helps to build camaraderie. We get to talk, joke, kind of get some of the nerves out before the game the next day. It helps build us as a family."
Loudoun Valley football will need a superior effort this season, the school's first in the AAA National District. While other teams at Loudoun Valley will play in Class AA during the regular season and then switch to Class AAA for the playoffs, the football team will play the entire season in Class AAA.
"We know we can do well," Schonder said. "This senior class, we've been together for a long time, and we've been having success, so I think all of us are pretty psyched, and I don't think we have any doubt in our minds that we're going to compete and do really well."