By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy volleyball coach Ellie Wheelock knew the Patriots were going to have some holes to fill this season. What she didn't know was how exactly SVCA was going to fill them.
The graduations of Kayla Freemire, Sarah McGann and libero Hayley North, who were major contributors to last year's team, created some obvious voids for SVCA and were an early cause for concern for Wheelock. But her apprehension about the season was soon quieted when the Patriots took the court.
SVCA (25-2) opened the season with a dominating 19-game winning streak before falling to Mercersburg, 3-2, at home in the what would be the Patriots' only regular-season loss. Their performance earned them the top seed in the Virginia Association of Christian Athletics North Region tournament -- which the Patriots went on to win -- and a spot in the VACA state tournament. SVCA's season ended in the state quarterfinals when the Patriots fell to Roanoke Valley Christian Academy.
Despite the hot start to the season, Wheelock said SVCA's rotation was still a work in progress early in the year as she searched for that perfect fit for each of her players on the court.
"It took a little while because at the beginning of the season I was still trying to figure out who was really going to fill in those spots," said Wheelock, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Volleyball Coach of the Year. "We had our tournament here, the Labor Day tournament, and we did OK. I saw some things from the girls, but then as the season progressed... I thought halfway through the season, [I was] just seeing such improvement in the girls and the younger players really stepping up."
SVCA entered the season with just two seniors on its roster, so Wheelock knew that the Patriots would need some underclassmen to step up as on-court leaders.
Wheelock got the production she was looking for, and junior hitters Carol Bartholomew and Krista Freemire emerged as the go-to players in SVCA's offensive attack. Freemire finished the season with 123 kills, while Bartholomew led the Patriots with 176 kills to go along with 21 blocks.
"Each year [Bartholomew] makes such improvement in being able to place the ball down. Her hits have gotten stronger -- just the maturity and the game, and being able to see what's open," Wheelock said. "She even stepped in and was a leader on the court too. So that was really nice."
Junior setter Hannah McGann also stepped up as a key cog in the Patriots' offense, as she finished third in the area with 237 assists. McGann also was third in the area in service aces (52).
But perhaps the most pleasant surprise for Wheelock came from SVCA's two freshmen. Wheelock said middle hitter Hannah Berger showed steady improvement as the year progressed, and freshman libero Megan Bowers filled in quite nicely in North's place.
"Our freshman libero, Megan Bowers, just shocked me with her play," Wheelock said. "We had played some volleyball over the summer and I saw her play, and I was like 'OK, she's going to be talented.' But she really did a good job during the season."
The 2013 season couldn't have started any better for the Patriots, who didn't lose a set in their first 16 matches. Shenandoah Valley Academy finally handed SVCA its first set loss of the season on Oct. 1, but the Patriots went on to win the match 3-1.
"I was really concerned how we were going to react when we lost that first set," Wheelock said. "One game we ended up being able to pull it off, and in another game against Mercersburg we weren't able to pull off the win.
"At times I was just hoping that we would lose a set, or even a match, just so that we could not get too overconfident in ourselves."
SVCA stayed hot in the VACA North Region tournament as the field's top seed, as the Patriots beat Mt. Carmel in the semifinals and topped Fresta Valley for the regional championship.
The Patriots held one of the two No. 1 seeds in the eight-team VACA state tournament but were swept by RVCA, the fourth seed out of the South region, 3-0 (22-25, 22-25, 21-25).
"We knew that the South is much stronger than our North region. I just think that the girls just went down and were not ready mentally for that," Wheelock said. "Physically we should've been able to pull it off, but mentally ... I don't know if we were overconfident because they were the four seed or what, but we just did not come in to play that day."
Despite the early exit in the state tournament, Wheelock was still happy with the season, especially with the emergence of many of SVCA's younger players, most of which should be back next season.
"In my mind I just didn't know what to think about the season. But then once we get started I see that we have had a few new girls coming in with lots of talent, and who have played before. So that just helped so much," Wheelock said.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD