By Brad Fauber - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Warren County has plenty of reasons for optimism as the Wildcats prepare to begin the 2012 volleyball season.
For starters, the program is breaking in new head coach Sarah Putnam, who is getting her first shot at the varsity level after two seasons at the helm of Warren County's junior varsity team, and the move already has the current players excited.
But perhaps the Wildcats' biggest reason for high hopes in 2012 rests with the amount of experience returning from last year's squad. Warren County returns seven players, including six seniors, from last season's 8-7 team, and the Wildcats hope to use that experience to their advantage this season.
"I feel like we have a lot of strong areas on our team," said senior libero Nicci Hutzell. "We're going to be pretty decent this year -- I think we're stronger than last year. I think that we should be a really good contender this year in our district."
Warren County finished fourth in a tough Evergreen District last season, ending the year with a 2-6 record. Both district wins came against Brentsville.
Putnam said the returning players have put in a lot of effort since the end of last season, mainly through open gym games and volleyball camps, and that effort has carried over into the opening weeks of practice for the Wildcats.
"The team has been working really hard. We've been working on a lot of different things this offseason," Putnam said. "We're looking to be competitive, and I expect us to be competitive this season."
The Wildcats have already begun to notice the benefits of having such an experienced squad on the floor, and Hutzell said she and her teammates often experience "twin telepathy" on the court during practice.
Senior middle blocker Jade Rowe agreed, saying that the number of returning players has given the Wildcats a boost of confidence.
"We have a really good sense of where everybody's going to go," said Rowe. "I think we're going to be really good. We feel like we've come together as a stronger team and we're definitely going to show everybody what we've got in the district."
The leadership of its seniors will be critical for Warren County if it hopes to find success this season, particularly in district play. Hutzell, Rachel Cerretani, Jasmain Ford and Alyson Fox are all four-year players at the varsity level and will serve as team captains this season, and Putnam expects big things from them this year.
"We're definitely going to rely on their experience, especially in certain game situations," Putnam said of her team captains. "They've been instrumental in growing our program so far in the last four years. I hope to continue that."
Of course, Putnam's ability to prepare the Wildcats for each and every game will be a key component to the 2012 season.
Putnam said she has not strayed far from the style of play that former head coach Scott Wilde implemented during his time at Warren County, but has instead focused more on the intangibles of the game.
"Teamwork, that's my big thing here," Putnam said. "I emphasize coming together between each dead ball and picking each other up, and staying confident and trying to stay consistent as a team."
The team has openly embraced Putnam's team-first philosophy, and her presence on the floor during the first few weeks of practice has already made an impact.
"We all love her. Now that she's officially our coach we feel like we can connect with her more," Rowe said. "We're just so happy to have her, because we're all just connecting -- we all work together great."
Warren County opens its season tonight with a home match against Central and will have some time to work out any kinks before district play begins on Sept. 27 against Kettle Run.
Hutzell said the Wildcats have a realistic shot at finishing in the top two in the Evergreen District, and she said a spot in the Region II tournament could very well be in the cards.
Putnam isn't so quick to make postseason predictions, but the amount of returning talent certainly has the first-year coach excited.
"We are definitely looking to be competitive, and we're going to take it one game at a time," Putnam said. "Hopefully the best possible outcome falls in our favor, but we're definitely going to work towards [a spot in the region tournament]."