By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- As a child, Autumn Troxell always thought softball was going to be her sport. After all, she has been playing the game since she was 8 years old.
But in seventh grade, Troxell decided to join her friends for a game of volleyball. A short while afterwards, behind the encouragement of her parents, Troxell found herself trying out for Warren County Middle School's volleyball team, and a new passion started to form.
"I was playing around with my friends and I was like 'oh, this is fun,'" Troxell recalled of her first volleyball experience on Wednesday evening. "So I went to tryouts and it turned out that I wasn't that bad at it, so I was like 'maybe I can get used to this.' After I started to play with friends and grow bonds, it just stuck with me.
"I originally wanted to play softball throughout ... I think about freshman year [of high school] is when it totally hit me like 'I want to play volleyball.' My love for the game, it just grew. Softball kind of was there, but then it started to slowly go away and volleyball, I can't stay away from it. I just love the sport so much."
Troxell, now a junior at Warren County High School, still plays softball and basketball, but she has devoted most of her time since to volleyball, and she has undergone quite a transformation on the volleyball court over the last five years.
Troxell began her volleyball career as a setter on the middle school squad, but her height (she's now 6-foot-1) made her a more natural fit at hitter. Then-JV coach Sarah Putnam moved Troxell to outside/middle hitter (depending on the situation) her eighth-grade season, and Troxell played outside hitter on the varsity team as a high school freshman.
Last season, Putnam took over as the Wildcats' new varsity head coach, and Troxell again made a positional switch as she was moved to middle hitter.
"I feel like the fact that I've learned all of these different spots just helped me become the player that I am now," Troxell said. "I can play multiple spots on the court, and I know how to do it because [the coaching staff] taught me the fundamentals about it... I have more court sense. I assess the situations better."
Playing all of those different positions over the last few seasons primed Troxell for a breakout season this past year for Warren County.
Troxell started the season still listed as a middle hitter, but she was much more than that for the Wildcats this season. Troxell rarely left the court, and her versatility proved huge for Warren County this year.
Troxell, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Volleyball Player of the Year, finished the season with a team-high 267 kills, 91 blocks, 23 aces and 125 digs, while helping Warren County to a 12-12 season. She was a first team all-Bull Run District and first team all-Conference 28 selection.
"She willingly accepted playing all the way around as it was best for the team," Putnam said in an email. "Autumn always puts the team first, which is one of the great things about her. She has the focus and the drive to improve not only her own skills but the team's skills to enable all of us to be successful."
The Wildcats looked to Troxell -- who averaged 13 kills a game this year -- to serve as their catalyst all season long, but the junior said should she wouldn't have gotten anywhere without the other five girls that surrounded her on the court at any given time.
"It really starts with my teammates. It's not just me getting the kill. If it wasn't for their passing and their setting I wouldn't have those kills," Troxell said. "We really worked on our fundamentals a lot and it really paid off with my kills and my teammates' kills. It helped to set off my season."
Troxell's ability to generate powerful attacks has always been there, but she said her defense really began to come along as the season progressed, making her more of a complete player.
"I definitely think I've gotten better at [defense]," she said. "I can honestly say at the beginning of the season I wasn't my strongest, but throughout the season [the coaches] helped me to become a better defensive player. I honestly think I've caught up my defense with my offense."
Troxell's stellar play helped Warren County finish third in the Bull Run District during the regular season in the Wildcats' first year as a member of the district. In the first round of the district tournament, Troxell tallied 15 kills and seven blocks in a thrilling 3-2 win over Strasburg.
But Warren County lost in the district semifinals to William Monroe, and the Wildcats' season ended in disappointing fashion when they were upset by Central, 3-0, in the first round of the Conference 28 tournament.
"I felt like it was a major letdown. We should've went in there and taken it from the start, but we started off slow and then it just kept going slow," Troxell said. "I felt like we could've came out with the win, but it wasn't happening for us."
Despite the disappointing end to the season, Troxell was still pleased with what the Wildcats' accomplished, especially after Warren County lost six seniors to graduation from last year's team.
Troxell said she embraced the fact that she would be looked upon as a leader for this year's team, and she drew inspiration from the teammates that she looked up to when she was younger.
Putnam said Troxell gained confidence in her leadership skills this season, which not only helped her perform well on the court, but also enabled the team as whole to remain competitive.
"The seniors my freshman year, I definitely looked up to them. I took from what they did and what they said and I used it for when I got older and when I started to get better through the years," Troxell said. "I definitely took in all the things that they would say to me. I tried to be that for the girls this year."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD