By Jeremy Stafford
STEPHENS CITY -- Megan Sirbaugh couldn't have known her own potential.
Not when she was 4 years old, bumping volleyballs with her younger sister, Morgan, at her mother's club volleyball tournaments.
Megan Sirbaugh couldn't have known her potential even in the sixth grade, when she played parks and recreation volleyball, the first time she'd ever played organized volleyball.
When she played JV volleyball at Sherando her freshman year, Sirbaugh was a middle hitter. So there wasn't any way anyone, even then, could have known what kind of latent potential simmered inside her. There was no way to tap into it; no way to know that by her senior year -- her first season as Sherando's full-time setter -- she'd border on 600 assists and captain the Warriors to Northwestern District regular season and tournament titles.
No one has done that in quite some time.
Sirbaugh smirks, explains why she's no longer a hitter: "I used to be tall -- everybody else grew."
This is the date Sirbaugh, and everyone, realized her potential: Nov. 6, 2008.
That was the first season Chuck Ashby coached Sherando's varsity volleyball team. That was the last season all-district hitters Lauren Carter and Haley Jacobsen played on the team.
And that date, specifically, marked the Region II semifinal, when Western Albemarle traveled to Stephens City and Carter busted her ankle and the Warriors could have fallen into disarray.
After garnering only routine playing time throughout the season, Sirbaugh was tossed into the Warrior's rotation, still as a hitter. Her serves splashed alluringly, as did her kills, and Sherando took two sets from Western Albemarle.
"She pushed it to five," Ashby said, "she helped us -- she got a couple serves that kinda ate up Western."
Carter returned for the fifth set, wasn't the same with her lame ankle, and Western Albemarle took the match.
But from that match, Sirbaugh gained all she needed heading into her junior season: the confidence that she would play a vital role in whatever Sherando volleyball was to accomplish in the coming years.
During her sophomore year, while playing club volleyball in the Northern Virginia Volleyball Association, Sirbaugh took to setting, the first time she'd really set since she was younger.
Sirbaugh started the 2009 season setting opposite Taylor Henshaw in Sherando's 6-2 offense. But midway through the season, Sherando switched to a 5-1 and Ashby moved Sirbaugh back to hitter -- because she had the Warriors' highest kills efficiency, Ashby needed Sirbaugh hitting.
"She was kind of the go-to person when we needed that quick side out," Ashby said.
Sirbaugh's potential was put on hold a bit longer.
Once again, Sherando sprinted to the Region II semifinals, and once again played Western Albemarle for the chance to advance to the Group AA state tournament. This time the match was in Crozet, and Sherando lost in four sets.
But for the second time, Sirbaugh gained something from playing Western Albemarle. She learned how fast an offense of athletes could be. She saw firsthand how a quick tap to a fast hitter can throw a defense out of whack, can churn through teams like a hot band saw through slabs of pine. She saw what an unflappable setter with uncanny court awareness can do for a small but fleet-of-foot team.
That date was on Nov. 12, 2009. That's the date Sirbaugh realized Sherando's potential.
Because Sherando, too, is small but athletic and fast and powerful. Morgan Sirbaugh, Lauren Wilkins and Brooke Schneider are all capable of registering a dozen kills -- sometimes on the same night.
All that trio needed, now that Henshaw had graduated, was a capable setter. It wasn't hard for Megan Sirbaugh, still setting in the NVVA, to develop a setter's soft hands: "All you have to do is pop it up to yourself in practice," she said.
What Sirbaugh didn't need to develop was her presence: Sirbaugh really is unflappable. She's a calming wind.
"She's pretty much always been positive," Morgan Sirbaugh said -- her sister, even then lying on the court, popping a volleyball into the air. "If she gets down on herself, it goes away in two seconds and she gets over it.
"... A lot of us get down on ourselves, and she just helps make everything positive again."
Megan Sirbaugh also has that uncanny court awareness, acquired from having played volleyball for so long -- dating back to those now distant days when she peppered with Morgan.
"I've been around the sport for a long time," Megan Sirbaugh said of being able to read the court, "so it's just something that I've kind of grown into.
"It's pretty natural for me now just to be thinking where everybody is all the time."
With Sirbaugh setting, Sherando implements more quicks to the middle and shoots to the outside. Sirbaugh said Sherando's tempestuous offense lends itself to the speed of her hitters, which is certainly true.
But Ashby said it lends itself to its setter: "If you play someone like Megan, who's smart enough and athletic enough to put the ball where it needs to be, and move it around depending on what's on the other side of the net, that makes us look a lot better."
It also has the Warriors seeded third in the Region II tournament. On Tuesday, Sherando will host the winner of today's match between Broad Run and Fluvanna.
James Wood, the Northwestern District runner-up, will host Briar Woods today at 7 p.m.
In the Region B, Division 2 tournament, which starts Tuesday at 7 p.m., Central will play at Randolph Henry, Gretna will play at Strasburg, and East Rockingham will play at Clarke County.
Should Sherando advance to the semifinals, Sirbaugh could get her third consecutive crack at Western Albemarle. Only this time, there's nothing left to learn. Sirbaugh's potential is realized. Sherando's offense, with Sirbaugh at its core, is gushing with kills.
All Sirbaugh can really do, all the Warriors can really do, is play up to that potential.
"We're definitely really excited going into regionals, but we really need to pick up our level of play a little bit," Sirbaugh said, "really focus on digging, mixing up our hits and our serving.
"We're working really hard though, and we just need to keep our intensity going into those games."