Volleyball at LFCC takes off

Lord Fairfax Community College women's volleyball coach Tara McCormick instructs her team during a recent practice at New Hope Bible Church in Front Royal. Brad Fauber/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — Valerie Hutzell thought the final volleyball match she played at Warren County High School in the fall of 2013 would be the last of her career.

So you can imagine the pleasant surprise she got when Lord Fairfax Community College, where Hutzell chose to continue her education after graduating high school in 2014, added a women’s volleyball program to its list of athletic offerings this past winter.

“That was my favorite part of high school. Knowing that I would never do it again was just kind of really sad,” said Hutzell, a volleyball player since seventh grade, during a recent practice at New Hope Bible Church in Front Royal. ” … It was something that [LFCC] just decided to do this year, ironically the year that I decided to come. I’m just really, really happy to be a part of it again. Like I said, it’s one of my favorite things to do.”

Hutzell’s sentiment is one that is echoed by most of her 12 LFCC teammates, many of which played volleyball in high school and didn’t envision continuing their playing careers after graduation.

But they learned they were getting that chance in November when an interest meeting was held after Tara McCormick, an adjunct professor at LFCC, approached the school’s outreach and athletics specialist, Aaron Painter, about forming a women’s volleyball team. Nine students attended the interest meeting, McCormick said, and 21 showed up to the first open gym, and the program was started with McCormick serving as the head coach.

Lord Fairfax Community College's Jade Rowe spikes the ball during a recent volleyball practice at New Hope Bible Church in Front Royal. Brad Fauber/Daily

“I just so badly wanted volleyball to be a part of here and not just something in the city or whatnot, or down south,” said McCormick, who played volleyball at Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy and Eastern University and served a stint as an assistant coach at Trinity University in Washington, D.C. “When I started teaching at Lord Fairfax I thought, they don’t have a volleyball team, so I went to Aaron and asked him and I was so thrilled when we had 20-some girls come out. It was crazy.”

The Lions’ roster was eventually whittled down to 13 players — all hailing from Shenandoah, Warren and Frederick counties, McCormick said — and LFCC got to work with its first official practice on Jan. 7.

Since then, the Lions have been practicing twice a week in the gymnasium at New Hope Bible Church.

“The challenges with a community college are you have to be respectful of the fact that they’re working college students,” McCormick said. “All of them have jobs, so they put their schedules around that. It’s hard for us to always have our whole team the two days.

” … I’m very grateful for the fact that they’ve come together so quickly and they really bring it in practice. They’ve bonded, I think, immensely. I think only three or four of them really knew each other and now all of them are quite close.”

Lord Fairfax Community College women's volleyball players (bottom, left to right) Lucy Foeckler, Jensen Gochenour, Jamison Cook, Valerie Hutzell, (top, left to right) Brittney Smith, Brittany Riggleman, Jade Rowe, Ashlie Clar, Brianna Lewis and head coach Tara McCormick pose for a team photo following a recent practice in Front Royal. Photo courtesy of Kelly Braun-Duin

LFCC is still struggling on the court with some of the chemistry aspects, however, which is to be expected given the varying levels of prior playing experience among its players. McCormick said there are a handful of players on the team that had little to no previous volleyball experience before joining LFCC’s team.

“We have some times where we’ll just look at each other and the ball will drop right in between us,” said Jamison Cook, a 2014 graduate of Central High School and one of three team captains alongside Hutzell and Brianna Lewis. “We really need to work on that. Covering I think is the main thing, just learning to know how their hand’s going to go and how to get there in time.”

The Lions did get a chance for some very beneficial bonding time recently, when they traveled to Virginia Tech on March 21 for a National Collegiate Volleyball Federation (NCVF) ranking tournament.

LFCC went winless in a 15-team field that was made up of fellow NCVF-certified club teams primarily from Division I universities, but the experience the Lions gained from their participation was invaluable. Lewis said LFCC departed the tournament with a much closer team bond than when they entered.

“Going to our tournament [March 21] we all got to talk about our experiences and everything and we decided we didn’t want to call ourselves a team anymore. We wanted call ourselves family because this is like some of our second homes,” said Lewis, who graduated from Skyline High School in 2013. “We come here, we talk about our day and we come and work out with each other and do stuff. It’s amazing to come out and do this.”

The Lions, who had previously had just one match — a scrimmage against an 18U club team from Front Royal — before competing in the ranking tournament at Virginia Tech, began pool play with a 2-0 loss to the University of Pittsburgh. That loss was followed by a defeat at the hands of Georgetown and another by a team from the University of North Carolina before LFCC’s trip to Blacksburg ended with a 2-0 loss (25-20, 26-24) to Mary Washington in the first round of bracket competition.

McCormick said LFCC’s first set against Pittsburgh was “a little scary” but she was encouraged by the fact that the Lions’ performance improved from match to match, and they nearly pulled out a win in their final set of the tournament.

“I’m thankful for the loss,” McCormick said, “because now I think they’re hungry for a win and they know what they have to play like to win. They have to play together. It was a good day.”

The spring season will serve as a tune-up period for LFCC before the Lions begin true competitive play in the fall. The Lions have a road match with Hood College scheduled for April 18 and McCormick said a formal spring scrimmage with Shenandoah University is also in the works.

McCormick said LFCC already has matches lined up for the fall season against Christendom College, Trinity University, Gettysburg College, Shepherd University and Eastern Mennonite University, and a match against Shenandoah could be held as well. LFCC will play its home matches at the old Warren County Middle School on 15th Street in Front Royal.

“We want to show everyone what we can really do,” Cook said. “We want to do really good and I think that we will. At our tournament we had some problems, but at the end we improved a lot.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com