Digging deep: Ruffner thrives under pressure as Warren County’s libero

Warren County's Chelsea Ruffner gets on the floor for a dig during Thursday practice in Front Royal. The Wildcats will face unbeaten Lord Botetourt in the VHSL Class 3 state finals at 3 p.m. Saturday at Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center in Richmond. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – By now the key names behind the high-powered offensive attack for Warren County High School’s volleyball team are well known.

Outside hitter Kaley Foulks, the Region 3B Player of the Year, is five kills shy of 400 for the season. Middle hitters Britney Carter and Lauren Fox are effective complements, with 181 and 150 kills, respectively. Setter Morgan Coons, who has 796 assists this season, is the pivot point that makes everything go.

But at the start of each scoring sequence for the Wildcats is the initial pass, and more often than not that responsibility rests on the shoulders of senior libero Chelsea Ruffner.

There’s pressure, certainly, that comes with digging out a ball to set in motion Warren County’s attack, Ruffner admitted following practice on Thursday afternoon. But she’s fine with that.

“It gets drilled in your mind, it’s just like none of that would happen if I don’t get this (pass up),” Ruffner said. “But that pressure is good for me. I work with that. That’s how I do well. I’m one of those people that like people putting that pressure (on me) because it keeps me in check.”

The stakes didn’t get any more pressure packed than they did in Tuesday’s VHSL Class 3 state semifinal match at Southampton, and Ruffner was one of the stars that helped the Wildcats pick up a 3-1 victory that sends them into their first-ever state championship, a 3 p.m. meeting with unbeaten Lord Botetourt on Saturday afternoon at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center.

One of the keys for Warren County entering Tuesday’s match was limiting the production of Southampton 6-foot-1 senior middle hitter Emma Drake. Ruffner finished with 19 digs and, perhaps most importantly, registered a 2.7 serve-receive rating – which measures the quality of a player’s passes – in the victory, according to head coach Dorinda Robinson. A 3.0 rating – which indicates a pass that gives the setter all three available options – is perfect.

“She really takes control of the serve receive,” Foulks said of Ruffner. “Her numbers are so consistent. It’s really awesome to be able to side-out, to get a good pass so you can side-out. That’s basically how we won the Southampton game. We would side-out before the 6-1 middle could hit.”

Serve receive has always been a strong aspect of Ruffner’s game, said Robinson, who added that the senior has made improvements in all areas on the volleyball court as she stepped into the starting libero role for the first time this season.

“I think she just has more confidence in herself now,” Robinson said. “… I think she understands what her role is and she is actually able to perform that role pretty well. She’s been solid. I mean she’ll have a couple bad plays here or there but she’s usually pretty consistent in her play. That gets us started.”

Ruffner probably would be best served by being a little more vocal – even she admits her voice often gets lost on the court among her much louder teammates and coaches – but she possesses the toughness that is required of any effective libero.

Describing some of the beatings she’s taken on her way to 285 digs this fall, Ruffner held out her right hand.

“I’ve got this, this bone moves in front of this one,” she said, pointing to the area on her palm between her pinky and ring fingers.

“I’ve got bruises everywhere. I don’t care, I love this sport.”

Though Ruffner wasn’t the Wildcats’ libero in 2016, she did see varsity action as a back row player last season and had played the role of defensive specialist for the middle school team. That helped ease the transition this season, she said, as she was already familiar with the rules surrounding the libero position and her responsibilities as such.

“I just set up the hitters. That’s my job, and I just try my best to get that perfect pass to Morgan (Coons),” said Ruffner, adding that she and fellow back-row players Nikki Roof and Nicole Sayre “work our butts off” in the shadow of Warren County’s offensive weapons.

“Us back row players, we always support each other because we know hitters are the big dogs. And it’s so true. They kill us back row people,” she added with a laugh. “They’re awesome. But I think every position matters, absolutely.”

Foulks, who doesn’t leave the rotation and plays front and back row for the Wildcats, doesn’t take Ruffner’s job for granted.

“When Chelsea digs stuff up, I’m thanking her when I’m going to hit because I know that Chelsea’s going to be the one to get the ball up to me,” Foulks said. “I really depend on her for my front row (play).”

The Wildcats will take that cohesiveness onto the court one final time  today with a state championship on the line. Ruffner said she expects the day to be filled with mixed emotions as the magnitude of the game and the realization that some Wildcats will be playing their final volleyball match sets in.

“I say as long as we do the very best we have, I will be so proud no matter what, really,” said Ruffner, her eyes glistening as she tried to hold back tears. “The things we’ve done this season, it’s unbelievable. Nothing about that one outcome on Saturday will take away how proud I am of our team.”