By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Sarah Putnam knew very well the situation that the members of Warren County's volleyball team were facing before the start of the 2012 season.
The Wildcats were welcoming in Putnam as their new head coach, and several seniors were making the transition to a new coach for the third time in four seasons. Putnam went through a similar situation during her high school volleyball career, and the first-year coach says that experience helped both she and her players ease into the new season.
"I'm just thankful that the girls were positive and supportive and willing to do what they needed to do to be successful, especially with a new coach, because that's hard," Putnam said. "In high school I went through a couple different coaches, so I know how hard that can be. I think me being open-minded and them being open-minded, that transition was smooth."
Putnam, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2012 Volleyball Coach of the Year, certainly enjoyed a smooth transition into her new role. Under Putnam, the Wildcats posted a 13-6 record while finishing third in the Evergreen District, an improvement over last season's 8-7 record and fourth-place district finish. The 13 wins were the most in a Warren County season since the Wildcats went 13-9 in 2004.
Putnam said one of the biggest reasons that the Wildcats were able to find success in her first season at the helm was that she encouraged her team to freely express their thoughts. That honesty helped keep everyone on the same page.
"I think communication is key with girls, just letting them know where you are coming from and where you stand, and letting them voice their thoughts, too," Putnam said. "Whether you think they're good thoughts or not, I think just having that open conversation helps."
Of course, it also helped that Warren County returned seven players, including six seniors, from last year's team.
The wealth of experience that the Wildcats possessed allowed them to jump right into more advanced drills and game-type simulations early in the season. Putnam even said that the seniors often took on the role of unofficial assistant coaches.
But probably the biggest benefit of having so many players with an advanced knowledge of the sport came when some girls were forced to play out of position due to various circumstances.
"There were times when we had several players get injured in one game and we had to make some switches -- the libero had to come up and play front row," Putnam said. "And my knowledge and their knowledge made those switches and transitions a lot easier than if they had had no clue."
Putnam said each senior on the team brought something different to the table in terms of leadership attributes and abilities, which combined made the group a core component of what the Wildcats were able to accomplish.
Solid leadership from Warren County's seniors was expected, but a pleasant surprise for Putnam came in the form of junior setter Brooke Post, whom Putnam said emerged as a strong vocal leader in her first season at the varsity level.
The downside to having six seniors this past season is that those girls must be replaced come next year, but Putnam is encouraged by what she saw from Post this season.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what she and the other juniors have to bring next year," Putnam said.
The 2012 campaign was not only a learning experience for the Warren County players, but for Putnam as well. Putnam spent two seasons as the head coach of the Wildcats' junior-varsity team prior to making the jump to the next level, and Putnam said the varsity level offered plenty of new things to learn.
"I think I've learned the most this year than I have the last few years coaching," she said. "I've learned to be more patient, and I've learned to always stay positive. With girls, you definitely have to stay positive."
That patience and positive attitude have so far paid off for Putnam and the Wildcats. The trick now will be to maintain the level of success over the upcoming seasons.
Putnam finds comfort in the fact that she has received tremendous support from the Warren County community, which will help keep the Wildcats motivated to push harder and harder to become a consistent competitor in the tough Evergreen District.
"I've had several community members come up to me and say how proud they are of the girls and how hard they've worked, and how that's paid off and how that shows," Putnam said. "That just means a lot that we're building this program that people are noticing.
"It gives [the players] the validation that they're doing what they're doing and they're doing something right."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org