By Tommy Keeler Jr. -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- There's something about tournament time that revs up Millbrook's engine.
The Pioneers didn't feel they played their best during the regular season. However, this week the team suddenly came together just in time to win their third consecutive Northwestern District tournament title. The Pioneers beat Sherando 3-0 (25-22, 28-26, 25-20) in Thursday's final. The win avenged two regular-season losses to Sherando and ended the Warriors' 12-match win streak. Both teams advance to next week's Region II tournament.
"The word 'tournament' just kind of gets in our head, and we know we have to show up and be Millbrook," Pioneers senior setter Jordan Orndoff said, "and be who we've always been and be good."
It was a much different Millbrook team than the one that faced Sherando in the first two meetings.
The last time the teams played, Sherando's strong defense frustrated Millbrook by getting back many strong attacks from the Pioneers.
In the district final, the Pioneers were relentless in their attacks and their big hitters kept hitting even if the ball kept coming back. They also tipped the ball a lot, instead of just trying to overpower them.
"It helps us -- it's a kill," Millbrook senior hitter Devon Courneya said. "They don't really see it coming sometimes, and that really helps out."
Millbrook (18-4) pulled out a close first set with kills from Anna Comer and Courneya and two Sherando errors. The Pioneers seemed to take control of the match in the second set, building a 24-17 lead.
Sherando (16-6) fought back with 8 consecutive points for a 25-24 lead. In past matches the Pioneers might have let things slip away, but not this time.
The two teams traded points until a Sherando service error and a Courneya kill closed out the set.
"It was definitely important," Courneya said of winning the second set. "We usually have this thing where we lose the second game. We definitely brought ourselves back up from all the mistakes that we had. And we got that game."
The third set was also close throughout. With the score tied at 20-20, back-to-back kills from Courneya gave the Pioneers a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Two Sherando errors and an ace by Orndoff sealed the match.
Millbrook coach Kim Riordan said she noticed a difference in her team in Tuesday's semifinal win over James Wood, and it carried over into the final.
"On Tuesday night, I think my girls finally figured out that losing isn't fun," Riordan said. "The top three teams -- Millbrook, Sherando and James Wood -- always play well against each other. And they didn't like losing to them in the regular season. So, they really wanted to make a statement -- especially tonight."
Winning the tournament was important to the Pioneers after a disappointing regular season.
"We didn't win the districts as we planned, but we came out here tonight and we proved we're still champions," Orndoff said.
Sherando will host either Broad Run or Briar Woods on Tuesday in the Region II quarterfinals at 7 p.m.
Sherando coach Chuck Ashby said he felt his team wasn't in synch throughout the final. After back-to-back lackluster matches, Ashby said he hopes the players will pick up their games in the regionals.
"I'm hoping for a more fired-up run from the girls on Tuesday," Ashby said. "This wasn't a do-or-die situation, and Tuesday's going to be. So, we need to play like it's a do-or-die."
The Pioneers were led by Courneya with 14 kills and Gennie McGuirk with 10 kills. Orndoff added 22 assists.
Millbrook has a tough assignment, as well, as they travel to face two-time defending Group AA state champion Loudoun County on Tuesday in the Region II quarterfinals. The players said they don't know a lot about the Raiders, and aren't sure what to expect.
"We're just kind of going into it like a blind date," McGuirk said. "We're going to play our hardest and play like it's the best team in the world."