During a recent practice, the volleyball team at Middleburg Academy was simulating in-game scenarios. On one half of the court, six girls moved in practiced rhythm, setting and spiking point after point. On the other side, because Middleburg doesn't have enough players to field a practice squad, three teammates and the coach's son did their best to provide some resistance.
"Be efficient!" Coach Maureen DiClementi yelled over the booming bass of a 2 Chainz song on the gym's stereo system.
At Middleburg, efficiency is everything. In her six years at the school, DiClementi has built the Dragons into a powerhouse by running an aggressive offense and controlling the pace of matches. Last year, her team did that successfully, compiling a 40-3 record. The win total is even more impressive considering Middleburg had only 10 active players in the volleyball program.
This year, DiClementi again has 10 players, a few of whom have little volleyball experience. The school, with 125 students, uses a "no cut" policy for all of its teams. Every girl who shows up for volleyball tryouts at Middleburg earns a spot on one of the best squads in Northern Virginia.
"I don't guarantee playing time to anyone," DiClementi said. "But you can come and be part of something. You have a commitment, you have a place to be, and you have immediate friends."
The varied skill levels mean that DiClementi uses a small rotation of players, often employing only one or two substitutes, if any. That's where the efficiency comes in. In every match, the Dragons aim to serve aggressively, side out as fast as possible and pass to perfection. If all of this comes together, the result is the volleyball equivalent of a blitz. Before an opponent has finished wondering when the rest of the Dragons are going to arrive, Middleburg is up a set.
"When you face Middleburg, you know you're going to face a great team and a team with a plan," Flint Hill Coach Carrol DeNure said. "Our goal against them is to always serve tough and try to keep them out of their rhythm."
Flint Hill, a school with 58 volleyball players spread across four rosters, is the only area team to beat Middleburg ( 26-4).
The Dragons have overcome obstacles unique to a shorthanded team. Against Highland, the team's libero was out of town, and no one else on the roster plays the position. After two players collided in a match against Patrick Henry, DiClementi thought she would have to forfeit. A four-set win over Paul VI tested the team's endurance.
"There's really no margin for error," DiClementi said.
DiClementi demands, and receives, a special type of commitment from her players. At the aforementioned practice, on a Wednesday afternoon, senior defensive specialist Lilly Reilly, a four-year contributor and one of Middleburg's stars, had flown back from a college visit. She arrived in Virginia around the same time her team started practicing and came straight to the gym.
"It can be hard to practice with eight or nine people, but it's harder with seven," Reilly said.
Freshman defensive specialist Allie Hessenius has already bought in to her coach's direct style and sees how it has been effective for Reilly and the other senior leaders.
"It's intense, it's efficient, it gets it done — that's the style. I like it," Hessenius said.
But there's another side to her job that DiClementi must face as the leader of a program such as Middleburg. She has to combine the strategic coaching it takes to compete with the best teams in the area with the patient approach necessary to teach the game to a newcomer. It's that kind of skill, that careful navigation, that defines her tenure and her team.
But how long can it continue? With three seniors graduating this spring, Middleburg's roster will be down to seven and DiClementi will be dependent on a new freshman class for talent. When asked whether she expects an influx of new players next year, regardless of their talent level, the coach laughs.
"I don't," she said. "But we always figure it out."